Mondli Makhanya: How PR spin poisoned SA

2017-09-10 06:00
Mondli Makhanya

Mondli Makhanya

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The UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) did not mince its words or hide its disgust at PR firm Bell Pottinger’s work in South Africa.

Handing down its “harshest possible sanctions” by expelling the iconic reputation management company from its ranks, the PRCA on Tuesday said it had “never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour”.

It was compelled to do so after reviewing the “completely reprehensible piece of work” that Bell Pottinger did on behalf of Gupta-owned Oakbay Resources.

“Bell Pottinger’s actions were deliberately intended to create exactly the result they did – stir up racial hatred in a very sensitive area of the world,” the PRCA said.

We who live in this part know first-hand the impact of this campaign and the long-lasting effect it will have on our national discourse.

Now that the Bell Pottinger colossus, which once straddled the globe, has been brought down to earth, we should return to the beginning of this sorry episode.

It all began when the Guptas, arguably the filthiest family under the South African sky, wanted to polish their uncleanable image. Knowing that the hardest scrubbing would not get the dirt off them, they decided to divert attention from themselves. Enter Bell Pottinger, spin doctors to autocratic regimes and all kinds of shady types.

On its website, Bell Pottinger says its “professionals” are “chosen for their integrity, their ability to combine analytical skills with creativity and integrated thinking, and an interest in how communications, in its broadest sense, affects reputations”.

So when these professionals got to work, they parked the integrity bit and applied the other elements of their craft. They applied their analytical skills, which showed them that racially defined economic inequality was a source of much grievance in South Africa. From there, they applied creativity and integrated thinking, and came up with the racially inflammatory “white monopoly capital” and “radical economic transformation” narratives. They identified the enemies black South Africans should vent their anger at – white South Africans, then white captains of industry, then homed in on a set of wealthy individuals. And then – just as Adolf Hitler inflamed German emotions by repeatedly referring to the Treaty of Versailles – the Guptas and Bell Pottinger worked on black grievance by repeatedly sending out emotion-laden messages about racial inequality.

This is where the messengers became important, and also where the greatest betrayal of South Africa happened. The purveyors of state capture identified gullible messengers within the ranks of the ANC and society to filter the narratives into the language of the governing party and into the general South African conversation.

And so it came to pass that a 10-decade-old party with a rich history of intellectualism and militancy had its direction dictated by reputation managers on the payroll of crooks. A party with sophisticated ideological positions and thought-out policies was reduced to parroting the few words its owner had taught it. Before long, we had the Gupta-ordered and Bell Pottinger-constructed mantra. Some did so unconsciously, because that’s what happens with a well-constructed campaign. Others did it because they were being paid to.

This week, much anger was directed at Bell Pottinger and the Guptas for hijacking legitimate grievances and a difficult South African conversation, and summarising it into racially explosive catch phrases.

Our anger should, however, be directed at the Gupta runners who popularised this dangerous messaging through Gupta-sponsored websites, fake Twitter accounts, and in political speeches and writings. They were mercenaries who would do anything for a dime, regardless of the consequences. Among these mercenaries were leaders whose influence mattered because they carried the legitimacy of political office. These Gupta mercenaries disguised as activists and leaders took the destructive language of Bell Pottinger into the heart of our politics, making it a dominant debating point at the ANC’s policy conference in July. It has become a campaign platform for some of those who hope to get top positions at the party’s conference in December.

The problem with the narrative is not that it is untrue. Inequality with racial characteristics is a huge problem in South Africa. The urgency of creating an inclusive economy not dominated by a single race is a no-brainer. The undesirability of unhealthy monopolies is also well known, which is why we have a strong competition regime. The need for radical transformation has never been in question.

The problem is that we were duped into a narrative and side-tracked from substantive discourse by crooks who wanted to hide their evil deeds. It is embarrassing and humiliating.

Read more on:    bell pottinger

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