Johannesburg - It wasn’t a smear campaign, but a "love campaign", which drove African National Congress activist Shaka Sisulu to launch an unsanctioned project to boost the party’s troubled image ahead of the 2016 local government elections.
Sisulu met with News24 in Johannesburg on Wednesday evening following a shoot for his show, TrendingSA.
READ: ANC 'dealing with' black ops campaign claims
He was responding to allegations contained in an explosive affidavit placing him at the centre of an alleged covert operation aimed at tarnishing opposition parties ahead of the 2016 municipal polls.
"This was an initiative that came out of our own knowledge of what is required [and] what we felt was an extremely hostile media environment against ANC, and [we] looked at ways that it can be dealt with," he told News24.
Sisulu said he had formed an "informal grouping" made up of some of his ANC comrades with expertise in social media and public relations to launch an "aerial battle" for the polls.
He said talks to start the group started in January 2016, but then gained momentum, spurred on by the ANC’s disastrous showing of support at its manifesto launch in Port Elizabeth.
"I was not involved in a smear campaign - we would highlight things about the party [ANC], our messaging was positive," said Sisulu.
He said that when the party came under attack from opposition parties, the group had wanted to be able to call them out, but he insisted that they followed the IEC’s rules and regulations.
READ: ANC 'Black Ops' publicist not rattled by death threats
Sisulu admitted that this informal grouping had raised funds for the project from sponsors, but disputed that this amounted to R50m. He said this figure was "a figment of someone’s imagination".
The project ended when they failed to raise enough money, because sponsors were committed to other "pressing" projects, Sisulu said.
He said the group had its own working budget which didn’t even amount to double digits figures.
While some joined the group as volunteers, others like socialite and businesswoman Sihle Bolani had been paid their services.
It was Bolani’s affidavit that placed Sisulu at the centre of the alleged covert operation.
In her court documents, she claimed she had been brought into the "war room" to assist as a project manager.
Sisulu was reluctant to discuss the businesswoman’s role, saying it had changed constantly.
"My colleague who was at the forefront of fundraising had great belief in [Bolani's] certain abilities, but we had already identified other people who could play that particular role. So there was a shifting of roles, and I do know at some stage she was unhappy about that," he said.
In the end, he said, Bolani ended up playing an administrative role in the campaign.
Sisulu said he found some of the details around the saga in the media confusing, including the amount of R2.2m which Bolani claimed she was owed.
"When I hear the amounts being asked there are a lot of things that baffle me, because it far exceeds any of my own expectations that would have been paid out, even if money had been raised."
Sisulu, who has volunteered for several ANC campaigns, said their actions were out of love for the party. He explained that volunteering was part of ANC culture and that people wanted to contribute their time and skills to the party without being asked.
"That is why there is a thousand eyes and thousand feet all the time, people are always applying themselves in different ways.
"You put out from your own pocket from the time, hours and resources that you put into it. That is nature of electioneering and it takes a toll," he said.
Sisulu said he believed the move by Bolani was politically motivated.
"I rationalise in my mind that perhaps this is part of the cause. It’s not nice, but it’s the life of people who choose to be involved in politics in some shape or form," he said.
He expressed concern about family, friends and associates, telling News24 that they had faced a backlash on social media over the scandal.
"A lot of times, I have been on the other side of the Twitter storm, fuelling it. There are wider implications of a story like this for many people," said Sisulu.
Reflecting on Bolani’s failed urgent court bid in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg, he said he was sceptical about the timing, the figure being claimed, and a so-called report detailing activities from the operation that was submitted to the ANC.
"No one interviewed me and asked me for my view on the way things turned out. No one gave me the report, and suddenly there is a report, there is some sort of extortion from Luthuli House [the ANC's headquarters] to say 'Pay some money'," he said.
"No one is saying that people must not be paid, but it just baffles me that even in the month that I suppose the payment was made, there was a court case," he added.
He said he had tried to reach out to Bolani, but had been unsuccessful.