Friends & Friction: How to take down a president

Muzi Kuzwayo. Picture: Supplied
Muzi Kuzwayo. Picture: Supplied

The propaganda model to overthrow a sitting president has been perfected.

The art of building a brand has infected politics like a deadly virus that escaped from a sinister laboratory.

Using propaganda to overthrow an elected government has become a silent epidemic in many democratic countries.

No one can tell with confidence where the virus first mutated, but we could point to our own Wuhan – in China, where the Covid-19 coronavirus started – and say it started in Kiev, Ukraine, with the overthrowing of then President Viktor Yanukovych.

That revolution was started by the deliberate dissemination of disinformation.

It would be a stretch to accuse the late Timothy Bell of the now-defunct Bell Pottinger as the inventor of the sinister communications virus, but we could debate the idea that he was a carrier.

Bell worked for several advertising agencies in the UK before becoming former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s campaign adviser.

At the time, the Labour Party was in government and unemployment was high. Bell and the then advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi created advertisements showing people standing in the welfare line, with a headline that read: “Labour isn’t working.”

Labour was voted out, Thatcher was in, and so was Bell.

In a bid to save the reputation of the Guptas, who’d been accused of corruption in South Africa, Bell Pottinger split the rainbow nation with a campaign against so-called white monopoly capital, which pitted black against white.

The origin of the campaign was exposed, Bell Pottinger collapsed and Bell died in ignominy, sinking a reputation that he had built over a lifetime.

In a bid to save the reputation of the Guptas, who’d been accused of corruption in South Africa, Bell Pottinger split the rainbow nation with a campaign against so-called white monopoly capital, which pitted black against white

The fall of Yanukovych was a severe blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin because Russia was Ukraine’s biggest trading partner. Russia tried to intervene militarily and lost, but Putin had learnt his lesson. He was determined not to repeat his mistake.

Russia is only putting in place now what former US secretary of state George Marshall observed more than 100 years ago when he was still an officer – that the modern military commander must be an intellectual, not a skop, skiet en donner fool.

Putin found his partner in Valery Gerasimov, who is a graduate of three military academies and a veteran of the Chechen war.

In Chechnya, Gerasimov became famous for being personally involved in the arrest of a Russian army colonel who had killed a Chechen girl.

His primary role in the past few years has been to modernise the Russian armed forces in terms of intellectual thinking, technological research and fighting.

Last year at Russia’s Academy of Military Sciences, according to a report by The Moscow Times, Gerasimov presented a strategic document on the development of military strategy and science.

“Confrontation in the information sphere” had its own important section in the strategy, which shows that Putin will never forget Ukraine.

The presidential takedown model has five main elements:
  • Find cracks in the target and, where there are none, create them. South Africa is an easy target because of its racial fault lines, which Bell Pottinger exploited.

  • Create a big, bold lie. During the lockdown, some media practitioners accused Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of overruling President Cyril Ramaphosa after she said the cigarette ban would continue. This accusation was not based on any facts, nor was it disclaimed as opinion.

  • Wrap the lie around a kernel of truth. Some of Dlamini-Zuma’s accusers went further and accused her of being under the lobby of alleged cigarette smugglers by showing a photo of her with the alleged smugglers.

  • Find useful idiots to conceal your hand. Divert attention and, when the core has been weakened, launch a bold attack.

  • Play the long game. As they say, vultures are patient birds.


The worst mistake one could make in a takedown is to be defensive or retaliatory. Being apologetic also emboldens your enemies. Standing up to your adversaries has become an art in itself.

Kuzwayo is the founder of Ignitive, an advertising agency.


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