SA rises from Bell Pottinger ashes


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 when a public relations firm that once burnished the images of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the United States invasion of Iraq, BAE Systems (remember the arms deal?) and Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, now finds itself on the brink of ruin and ignominy, because of a campaign it ran for the Gupta and Zuma families.

The company has been expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) in the United Kingdom, and the exodus of clients that began in South Africa has become a global flood.

It ought to baffle every South African that, while Bell Pottinger is going down in a heap of fire, the same is not happening to the clients they worked for. Where are you, 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 dooms a PR company, what of the syndicate heads who commissioned them?

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

The hullabaloo has taken an unhelpful turn. The DA has said it will take “years to rebuild severely fragile race relations which Bell Pottinger, Guptas and 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. Despite 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, a US attaché said in a pointedly exasperated way that South Africans need to start giving themselves more credit than they usually do. This was just after the 2010 World Cup, when trade union federation Cosatu announced its national strike. I must have complained about it. I don’t think I understood what she meant at the time, but now, after our situation has become considerably worse, I finally see.

We should be furious about 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 in government, the opposition parties, trade unions, media, civil society and citizens.

The Gupta-Zuma network came mighty close to total control, and who knows how long it will take to undo all 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 its work has unravelled the 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, an opportunity for the greedy and the unscrupulous to exploit will remain. 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 ANC. The fact that state capture was a factional project, that it was birthed in the party and came to consume its abilities in government and society, is the ultimate indictment. There is no hand on the tiller and this is evident to the voting public.

We pursue an ideal of a nonracial, nonsexist 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 monstrosities such as Marikana, Esidimeni, Glebelands and state capture.

But the ANC’s failures needn’t be ours. We have to push forwards. Backwards is not an option. This is our struggle now.

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: the company has only served to prove that the democratic project belongs to all South Africans.


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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.

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