/ 26 April 2024

Not playing … what happened to the role models?

Ed 166796 Min
Former Democratic Alliance MP Phumzile van Damme. Photo: Esa Alexander/Sunday Times

On the way home after The Brothers, Number One and a Weekend Special, one of our main topics of discussion was, “Where are the real-life characters on which the play is based now?”

Playwright Richard Calland describes the main character “Uncle” as being a Mac Maharaj-like character with other ANC-type figures thrown into the mix. 

Maharaj retired as Jacob Zuma’s spokesperson and special adviser at the end of April 2015 — he was 80. 

“I bumped into him a couple of times in the last few months and he seems quite sprightly and on top of things,” Calland told me. “He’s in good shape.”

The play’s other main character, the notorious British spin doctor Tim Bell, died in 2019 at the age of 77. He founded Bell Pottinger, labelled by The New Yorker a reputation-laundering firm”.

The Guardian described him in its obituary as: hard drinking, heavy on the expenses, an 80-a-day smoker, living in Belgravia, his was a life of backstage whispers and casual amorality in business. 

“The only talent I have is charm,” he admitted to Campaign in 2014.

Bell was a close adviser to right-wing UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher in three of her successful general election campaigns. His other clients included the Augusto  Pinochet regime in Chile; Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian dictator; Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko and, finally, the Guptas’ Oakbay Investments, running a ruthless campaign for them to stir up racial animosity in South Africa.

Calland said Bell Pottinger were “professional liars” whose operation was “fundamentally deceitful, dishonest, disingenuous, at best”. 

“It did great harm. It could have done even more harm, had there not been this great pushback.”

The New Yorker described them as a “PR company that worked with dictators and oligarchs which deliberately inflamed racial tensions in South Africa — and destroyed itself in the process”. For those who believe in heaven and hell, it is probably not difficult to locate Bell.

Michael Hulley represented Zuma in his 2006 rape trial and became a key member of his corruption defence team. In 2011, Zuma appointed Hulley his legal adviser but dumped him in 2018. He apparently returned to his private practice in Durban.

Bell’s sidekick, Virginia, is based on Bell Pottinger MD Victoria Geoghegan, who led its South African/Guptas account, and was key in crafting a strategy to shield the brothers from allegations of corruption — their misinformation campaign claimed criticism against them was part of a racist plot. 

Bell Pottinger created political jargon such as “radical economic transformation” and “white monopoly capital”, which is still with us.

Geoghegan bounced back after Bell Pottinger was put under administration in 2017, joining Thoburns Communications, a London PR firm, where she still works.

Phumzile van Damme resigned as a Democratic Alliance MP in 2021. She lives in Oslo, Norway, and works in digital human rights.

Former journalist and spindoctor Ranjeni Munusamy no longer appears to be in the media — it allows her to tweet relentlessly about Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton and nothing else.

What about the guys in the title? 

The Guptas will be arrested if they ever come back to South Africa. Their Saxonwold, Joburg,  manor still stands empty. Number One is number one on uMkhonto weSizwe party’s election list. Des “Weekend Special” van Rooyen is also on that party’s list and will be back in parliament, if they get enough votes in May.