A British public relations firm that stoked racial tensions in South Africa has collapsed after its sordid work on behalf of corporate and government clients came to light.
Bell Pottinger (BP), according to published findings, led a campaign that “was potentially racially divisive and/or potentially offensive and created in breach of relevant ethical principles.” The campaign, critics said, papered over troubles facing Pres. Jacob Zuma for granting a family of billionaires unprecedented control over government.
BP’s assignment was to polish the reputation of Oak Bay Investments, owned by the Gupta family, Indian-born billionaires with outsized influence over President Zuma.
Pres. Zuma’s son Duduzane Zuma, who worked for Oak Bay, met up with BP with ideas for a social media campaign shaped to appeal to the Black working class “along the lines of #EconomicEmancipation or whatever” with a “narrative that grabs the attention of the grassroots population who must identify with it, connect with it and feel united by it”, he said.
The campaign that emerged included altering several internet-based sources with strategically-placed misleading articles in Wikipedia, Twitter, chat rooms, blogs and in news articles which the Mail & Guardian news described as “a concerted online counter-propaganda campaign.”
Critics have also linked Pres. Zuma’s recent references to “white monopoly capital”, as part of BP’s strategic campaign to reverse the president’s falling popular support.
All along, however, the Gupta family was entrenching itself into the Zuma administration. A report by South Africa’s graft ombudsman described help provided to the Guptas to buy Optimum Coal Holdings and get favorable coal contracts.
Other charges include influencing the hiring and firing of ministers. Finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, for example, who resisted plans to build expensive nuclear plants, was abruptly removed in 2015 despite an excellent reputation worldwide. Leaked Gupta emails later turned up allegedly faked letters, written in Nene’s name, related to the funding of the multimillion-rand locomotive procurement. The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters said this would “open space for the Gupta-led syndicate to loot state resources for private enrichment.”
Aside from their work for South Africa, BP’s expertise in “fake news” has been much in demand worldwide including for the U.S. Dept. of Defense which according to the Times of London paid BP $540 million to create fake terrorist videos, fake news articles for Arab news channels and propaganda videos in Iraq.
BP declared bankruptcy on Sept 12 as a consequence of the scandal.