Bell Pottinger not the only transgressors

Daniel Silke.
Daniel Silke.

Amid a growing litany of ills besetting the country, our political discourse has become toxic, writes Daniel Silke.

THERE is no doubt that PR companies like Bell Pottinger have learned a lesson. Fanning racial divisions in deeply divided societies is not only dangerous, but ethically and morally wrong. It is a breach of any professional code of conduct that should be an example to a broad swathe of consultative services in the lobbyist, advertising, social media and public relations space.

Bell Pottinger's expulsion from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) is the final indignity for the agency and their future is now uncertain.

For South Africans, finding Bell Pottinger to be the transgressors has been vaguely cathartic. A UK-based company at the heart of stoking divisions somehow distracts from those forces of divisions still very much active back at home.

And, to use a loaded term, it’s always pleasurable to blame a ‘colonial’ company for fuelling the fire – not to mention seeing it face almost ruination.

With strict rules and industry-respected codes of conduct, the UK PR regulators acted quickly in finding Bell Pottinger guilty. For all the damage done, the judgment was swift and unambiguous.

But what about those fermenting racial division back at home? What about the racially charged politics that has come to characterise the clashes within South Africa between her respective political parties, leaders and contenders for power?

The racial labelling and ethnic stereotyping within domestic politics is nothing new. Yes, it took Bell Pottinger to elevate it to new and dangerous heights through an intense online campaign - but its roots are squarely planted at home.

Racially divisive politics is largely a function of a complex equation - a mix of historic economic inequality as a result of the apartheid past, the inability of the party of liberation to adequately address this - leading to high levels of anger and frustration - and an increasingly competitive political environment, resulting in the slippage of power of the once-dominant ANC.

Hardened attitudes across the racial divide as a result add to the mix.

This dangerous recipe makes the propensity for racially-divisive politics all the more likely. The inability of government policy to adequately redress the legacy of apartheid perpetuates inequality. The misuse (and abuse) of black economic empowerment does exactly the same, while redistributive rather than growth-orientated policies have hobbled the economy. Corruption saps confidence and extends the benefits to a small but well-connected patronage-based elite.

So, blame for what’s not working – from a political point of view – is easily apportioned to the white minority or ‘capitalist’ interests who are accused to maintaining a status quo or even fighting for the return of a pre-1994 era.

It is these sentiments that permeate the ANC, the EFF and a host of related political players, NGOs, academics, journalists and even analysts. It’s a script a variety of players stick to in an attempt to find an easy scapegoat and defer blame from the multitude of governance failures on the part of those in power.

Race-baiting is a useful conduit through which failure to deliver is deferred to others. Nothing new here – it’s tried and tested through the dark annals of human history. And, as the DA strengthens and the ANC’s grip on power incrementally weakens, political allegiance is quickly shored up through the racial denigration of the opposition,

Racial invective in analysis has become somewhat normalised in our political discourse. There is an automatic assumption that the white minority is to blame and remains as racist as ever, colluding to exclude the majority of their rightful place as equal beneficiaries. 

There is also an assumption that a liberal political philosophy is associated with a capitalist plot to undermine the black majority. And, most sinister, is the use by the ANC, EFF and others of racial stereotyping to debase opposition leaders like the DA’s Mmusi Maimane and other office bearers.

Racial stereotyping designed to stoke the flames of division

And everyone is in on the act. As recently as this last month, ANC presidential front-runner Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma referred to ‘white capitalists and their imperialist backers’. There is no obfuscating the message here. It’s racial stereotyping and designed to stoke the flames of division just as Bell Pottinger did. Why all the outrage for the PR company when it’s happening under our noses?

Even ANC maverick Makhosi Khoza has joined the fray. Within the last few days, she has singled out the DA as harking back to days of ‘white supremacist minority rule’ and of being a ‘nest of a new form of racism..that parades blackness in the front office and keeps white racism in the back office’. 

While Khoza clearly has problems with her own party, she sticks to script on the DA. It’s as inflammatory as anything put out by our UK PR friends. But we just let it pass as normal.

It is far from that.

Ultimately, governance failures usually demand corrective action. Either an incumbent political party is turfed out of power by a disappointed electorate, or it clings to power using well-worn tactics of distraction, fear and – in the South African case - racial stereotyping. To blame this on Bell Pottinger is short-sighted. To paraphrase: look close and ye shall find.

Amid a growing litany of ills besetting the country, our political discourse has become toxic. Real leadership needs to reverse these trends rather than magnify them. Real leadership needs to bring all South Africans together rather than deepen divisions.

Until such a time as all political leaders guilty of such invective desist from such tactics, South Africa will drift. At the core of our future is a combined destiny in which we all become reliant on and respectful to each other.

Our current crop of leaders seem to have missed this – to our peril.

  • Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.
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