Bell Pottinger did not invent SA’s racialised poverty and inequality

The good news is that South Africans have chosen to go forwards. That choice is evident in the rejection of state capture from all quarters of our society. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The good news is that South Africans have chosen to go forwards. That choice is evident in the rejection of state capture from all quarters of our society. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The Democratic Alliance should be proud. It has managed to topple the unassailable Bell Pottinger – the master swindler for the world’s most crooked and corrupt causes. 

It truly is something that a public relations firm that once burnished the images of Augusto Pinochet, the US invasion of Iraq, BAE Systems (remember them from the arms deal?), and Europe’s last dictator Alexander Lukashenko now finds itself on the brink of ruin, not to forget ignominy, because of a small campaign it ran for the Gupta and Zuma families. But yes, they are expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association (in the UK), and the exodus of clients that started in South Africa has become a veritable global flood.

It ought to baffle every South African that whilst Bell Pottinger is going down in a heap of fire, the same is not happening to the clients they worked for.
Whither art thou, Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation and National Prosecuting Authority? With each passing day, the rumours and corridor whispers about a near-collapse of the country’s law enforcement capabilities appear alarmingly true. If a dirty tricks campaign in aid of state capture should doom a PR company, what of the syndicate heads that commissioned them?

Going to the PRCA, and obtaining decisive action, was a smart play by the DA. Look how inadequate our cops by contrast.

The hullabaloo has taken an unhelpful turn. The DA has said that it will take “years to rebuild severely fragile race relations which Bell Pottinger, Guptas & Zumas sought to exploit for their own gains”. This is untrue. Some of the state capture reporting in the media is taking on this slightly hysterical tone. In spite of the gains of the past 23 years, we remain hostage to this idea of South Africa as an unpinned grenade waiting to explode at the slightest provocation.

Years ago, an American attaché told me in a pointedly exasperated way that South Africans need to start giving themselves more credit than they regularly do. This was just after the 2010 World Cup, when the Congress of South African Trade Unions announced the beginning of its national strike. I must have been complaining about it. I don’t think I understood what we she meant at the time, but now, after our situation has become considerably worse, I finally see.

We must be furious at the damage that state capture has done to the constitutional state, but at the same time, we should be heartened by the fight back from people within government, the opposition parties, trade unions, media, civil society and the public at large. The Gupta-Zuma network came mighty close, and who knows how long it will take to undo all of the damage. The crippled law enforcement agencies are but one example. Think of the billions it will take to put together what has been undone in the state-owned enterprises. But the final diagnosis should be that the cancer was not terminal. South Africa will survive this. We will each in our roles learn to better protect the constitutional state.

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx wrote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

There is something of that wish to remake the South African circumstance in the insistence that Bell Pottinger somehow brought upon us our realities of racialised poverty and inequality, or that their work has unravelled the very fabric of our society. There is a difference between acknowledging the South African burden, and cynically exploiting it for narrow gain.

As long as this reality persists, there will remain an opportunity for the greedy and the unscrupulous to exploit. Like all good liars, Bell Pottinger started off with an obvious truth. We ought not to succumb to the allure of the easy idea that solving state capture means doing nothing about the fact that our economy remains concentrated in the hands of the few, that blackness somehow still means poverty. The imperatives of redress and transformation remain.

Just as the state capture project has been a disaster for Bell Pottinger, it will ultimately prove to be a disaster for the African National Congress. The fact that state capture was a factional project, that it was birthed within the party and eventually came to consume its abilities in government and society, is the ultimate indictment. There is no hand on the tiller and this is now evident to the voting public.

We pursue an ideal of a non-racial, non-sexist society of equal opportunity, but the enormity of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid in our mortal imaginations damns this to be a futile pursuit. Each tiny step forward towards our goal is inevitably measured against the impossibly long road that lies ahead. We wrote a good constitution, but the ANC, the political formation that was entrusted by the electorate to realise its vision, has brought upon us the monstrosities of Marikana, Esidimeni, Glebelands and state capture. But the ANC’s failures needn’t be ours. We have to push forwards. Backward is not an option. This is our struggle now. Let’s get on with it.

The good news is that South Africans have chosen to go forwards. That choice is evident in the rejection of state capture from all quarters of our society. The DA should not have drawn the conclusion that Bell Pottinger broke us. It may not be evident now, but the PR campaign ultimately backfired: they have only served to prove that the democratic project truly belongs to all South Africans. 

Sipho Hlongwane

Sipho Hlongwane

Sipho Hlongwane is The Daily Vox’s acting managing editor. A published author, columnist and reporter by training (School of Hard Knocks), he has covered some of South Africa’s most vivid protest marches, wildcat strikes and press conferences. His scariest assignments were for fancy women’s magazines. He obsesses over football and popular music for fun. Read more from Sipho Hlongwane

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