The public relations company Bell Pottinger, which has been trying to repair the Gupta family’s image in South Africa, has dropped the family’s main company Oakbay as a client.
A campaign linked to groups calling for the resignation of President Jacob Zuma appears to have succeeded in making the controversial UK-based public relations company turn its back on the family and its business interests.
The campaign against Bell Pottinger accused the firm of intentionally sowing the seeds of racial division in order to distract from allegations of state capture by the Gupta family and Zuma.
The firm describes itself as the largest UK-based public relations consultancy measured by 2010 fee income.
Oakbay, the holding company of the Guptas’ mining and media interests, reportedly agreed to the termination of the contract, according to the Financial Times, just over a week ago. Bell Pottinger protested that the allegations against it had been a smear campaign and were baseless.
In a statement on Wednesday, Bell Pottinger said it was ending the relationship after becoming “the target of a politically driven smear campaign in South Africa over the last few months, with a number of totally false and damaging accusations levelled at it.”
It added: “It has been alleged that whilst we were contracted to Oakbay we were primarily working for the Gupta family with the full approval and involvement of President Zuma. This is completely not the case.”
Placards bearing pictures of Bell Pottinger partner Victoria Geoghegan, who was allegedly at the heart of the Oakbay contract, were brandished in nationwide protests against Zuma on Friday, including outside the Guptas’ home in Saxonwold.
The Sunday Times reported last month, citing a mysterious report, that Bell Pottinger sought to portray opponents of the Guptas as agents of “white monopoly capital”.
The firm has denied this, saying “we have never embarked on any of these smearing, racist and politically abusive activities we have been accused of”.
“Our resignation is totally linked to the attacks on us,” said James Henderson, Bell Pottinger’s chief executive.
The company also denied it has been behind a social media campaign using Twitter bots to smear former client Johann Rupert.
According to an investigation by the Sunday Times last month, Bell Pottinger took on the Gupta family as clients in 2016 to try to improve their image, and the chosen strategy was to target white business leaders as a distraction from serious allegations of state capture.
One of the strategies was apparently to drive a predominantly social media narrative that “white monopoly capital”, the SA Communist Party and National Treasury had been standing in the way of transforming the South African economy.
The phrase “white monopoly capital” has, over past months, become a major feature of mainstream political discourse, with even President Zuma using it.
Founding member of Bell Pottinger Tim Bell reportedly left his own firm with key staff members, in apparent disgust over the plan.
He alleged that arms deal facilitator Fana Hlongwane and President Zuma’s Gupta-associate son Duduzane paid the firm 100 000 British pounds to start working and several meetings were allegedly attended by both men.
The PR plan allegedly involved Andile Mngxitama and his Black First Land First Organisation, Mzwanele Manyi and his Decolonisation Foundation, and others.
It reportedly involved using, among other things, Twitter bots involved in a fake news campaign to support messages critical of white monopoly capital and be defensive of the Guptas.
Last year, South African billionaire businessman Rupert claimed Bell Pottinger was behind an ongoing attempt to link him to “state capture” activities.
Business Day reported that Rupert had been targeted on social media by certain fringe political commentators that had been constructing a narrative that the chairperson of R113 billion investment giant Remgro, controlled by the Rupert family, had “control” of key segments of the media.
Rupert reportedly told Remgro at an annual meeting that Richemont, the luxury brands business controlled by the Rupert family, had been on contract with Bell Pottinger to work on its financial relationships. The contract had lasted 15 to 18 years, he estimated.
“And while they were still in the employment of Richemont, they started working for the Guptas. The very same person … Their total task was to deflect attention [from state capture allegations involving the Guptas]. Guess who they took as a target? A client of theirs … me!”
The business tycoon said Bell Pottinger’s contract with Richemont had since been terminated. He denied allegations that his family business influenced the media or was trying to capture the state.
Bell Pottinger executive Geoghegan denied the claims made by the business magnate.
Manyi also told the Sunday Times that there was “no direct link” between himself, his foundation, Bell Pottinger or the Gupta family. He said that white monopoly capital “is first and foremost a reality in South Africa”.
Although Mngxitama did not give comment to the Sunday Times, he released numerous tweets about the article, among other things alleging that the paper was a “propaganda arm” for Rupert. He said Rupert provides “dirty funds” to the paper. He called the billionaire a “spoilt bret” who was upset that the Guptas had “taken” his “spin doctors”, Bell Pottinger, from him.
The Guptas, through their company Oakbay, dismissed the paper’s allegations as “fake news”.
Manyi took to Twitter to declare that he would be suing the Sunday Times. He also repeatedly tweeted that “White monopoly capital must fall!”