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LONDON — South Africans have rejected Bell Pottinger’s apology as too little, too late. And on Friday the company’s offices in Holborn will be picketed by London-based Saffers who intend demanding full disclosure and a full refund of fees paid by the Guptas. The demonstration is being arranged by the DA Abroad whose chairman, Will van der Merwe, explained to me why SA’s official opposition is taking this unusual approach – and what it hopes to achieve from the exercise. – Alec Hogg
I’m here in London with Will van der Merwe, chairman of DA Abroad. Last time we saw each other was at a demonstration outside South Africa House at Trafalgar Square.
Yes, it was a really good day. Lots of South Africans came out to protest and I think it was exciting. It was a great turnout and good to see people coming together. I think we need that every now and then.
About 600 people, some estimate. I thought there were more…
Yes, I would have also estimated probably close to 1000, because you had different numbers coming in and leaving at different times but I think it’s the overall feeling on the day. The number of people coming together is quite a key part of it that can be a little bit intangible. Then also, on social media – how much people share and get involved afterwards. I think we went live on Facebook and got over 6000 views so that was pretty good.
Now you’re going to do another event, which is coming up this week, on Friday – a very special one.
Yes. I think there are possibly two. Obviously, there’s a motion of no confidence that’s going forward so we may have a separate protest outside Trafalgar Square. This Friday, (obviously you would have been following but for the other listeners) the DA has lodged a complaint against Bell Pottinger to the PRCA and it’s due to come out on Thursday – their response to it. We are holding protests outside Bell Pottinger’s offices on Friday.
— Justice Malala (@justicemalala) July 10, 2017
Just give us some colour about this. Where are their offices and how many people are likely to come along?
Their offices are outside (in Holborn).
Is that a smart area?
Yes, it’s a relatively smart area in Central London. These things can vary. We haven’t officially marketed but we’ve got approval, so we will be marketing it as of pretty much, this evening and tomorrow.
Going out to our channels. Making people aware. Creating an event on social media/Facebook, and sharing it on Twitter etcetera.
We, meaning who?
Meaning the DA Abroad, It’s going to be arranged by the DA Abroad, but like the protest, we will arrange it, but any South Africans who also feel like they want to protest against Bell Pottinger and who are around are welcome to come along. It will be welcome to everyone.
Will, what are you protesting? What have Bell Pottinger done that’s angered you guys so much?
Bell Pottinger have been exposed more recently for peddling or using a campaign based on inciting racial tension and that is particularly concerning in the context of South Africa, especially where we need to be healing and moving forward, they’ve been running actively divisive campaigns and also under the guises or not under the guise, but supporting a regime that is corrupt and that is damaging the country. So, not only are they affecting the social stability of the country, they’re also affecting the economic stability of the country.
They have, but the apology is not enough and the DA has released a statement saying that because obviously a PR company will make a calculated decision to make an apology, but they’ve not come forth with anything else, so we actually have three calls that we are putting forth to them. One of them is to respond to the complaint, one of them is to give a full and complete disclosure on their website and that is of all their dealings with the Gupta’s and the Zuma faction, and then the third is to donate or contribute all the funds from the arrangement with Gupta-related companies to South African schools and education, so to turn something from a negative to a positive. Those are our calls that we’re making to them (demands if you like), that they have to respond to at the same time as the DA complaint deadline, which is six o’clock on Thursday.
I get “pay back the money” = potentially these are proceeds of crime that they’ve been using in a way that they shouldn’t have gotten in the first place, but what about the other two, what are the specifics? When you talk about they should respond? What do you mean by that?
The first, I believe they will meet. That’s just responding to the complaint, addressing it, giving a public statement.
They’ve done that, so what more do you need?
That was the apology. This is the complaint to the PRCA, so they have to respond to the PRCA.
PRCA – the body that looks after public relations firms in London…..
They have to give that response, but then we are going one step further and saying, fair enough giving that response, but come absolutely clean. We want all the laundry out, we want to see exactly what the relationships are because I think, Alec, that this goes far deeper and I’m sure many other people do. There’s evidence of Twitter bots. Now, it would be interesting to see what was behind those, what the actual strategy was, the deeper, darker side of the campaign and whether there are relationships with organisations like BLF and where there was sponsorship and the other interactions with the Gupta companies. I think there’s a lot that could come out and I think that’s what we would like to see, full disclosure, also on their website so that they don’t delay it and so on, we’ve made that quite clear.
What’s the response been from Bell Pottinger?
This, as I as I’ve said is going live today, so this will be issued either this evening or tomorrow morning.
So, you haven’t approached them before to say these are your demands?
No, this has all been put together relatively following recent events and judging on the sentiment because another thing is that there are many South Africans over here in the UK that are deeply angered by what’s been going on and I think there’s a huge amount of interest and sentiment and I think it’s as a DA Abroad, we need to make a stand on this. Obviously, representing the DA, following on from their action in South Africa, representing them on the ground, over here at Bell Pottinger’s offices, but then also standing up for a lot of the South Africans over here that feel that something needs to be done and I think there are a number of other actions that we’re looking at and I think those are more strategic actions. This protest is more to gain a little bit of exposure and bring it to light because remember this is a British PR firm that is meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state.
So the Bell in Bell Pottinger hated their SA campaign. Their Gupta account honcho,Victoria Geogeghan, has a Greenpoint, CT flat. Our 💲💲💲
— Ferial Haffajee (@ferialhaffajee) July 9, 2017
But they’ve been doing this for years. The information that comes out is that they’ve been playing in this geopolitical playground for a long time.
This is true, I think they have been. I think now that they’ve met their match though, they’ve overstepped the mark. South Africa, out of all the countries, has a potential to be the poster boy of racial relations. Coming from a very different place, you know, in some places South Africa is very progressive. In certain places you see things that you wouldn’t see in other countries and there’s a genuine understanding. Unfortunately, that’s not across the whole country, but I think if we get it right, we can be the leading light for many other nations, and the thing is that Bell Pottinger’s actually attacking this. My personal view is that the future of South Africa is very much determinate on us getting that right and us, not only accepting, but celebrating racial diversity and unity within that, so I think in that, Bell Pottinger’s meddling with the future of South Africa.
Therefore, I think we’ve already seen, with the activities – on Twitter, I was reading quite interesting articles about South Africans reacting on Twitter, I think they locked down their Twitter account (Bell Pottinger) because of the activities, so you have a lot of activism and I think it’s in our spirit. So, I think hopefully, we will get enough of a reaction that this sets a precedent to other exploitative companies or corporates, organisations in general that are looking to exploit and take advantage of South Africa. Ideally, they wouldn’t do it anywhere, but we have to protect ourselves against this, so hopefully this will set that precedent and future companies in a similar position will think twice.
Would you think about attacking SAP or McKinsey? It’s not just Bell Pottinger. They did some noxious stuff, but there are other companies who’ve been pocketing lots of money from the Guptas, potentially also proceeds of crime.
Yes, I do agree and in my personal capacity I’m also really angered by any corporates that are totally unethical in that way. Whether we follow it up (I think it’s more the political angle from the DA broad side and the DA side, but entirely I think that all of these should be followed up. To be honest, I think the licences of these companies should be reviewed because often it’s a slap on the wrist and the companies carry on. Now, another thing why I think this is particularly, possibly more pertinent is because not only is it corporate exploitation, but it’s also affecting society. It’s actually affecting individuals and it’s affecting the future of a country. It’s not just a fraudulent action, it’s an action that affects so many different facets and which has so many different results.
What kind of banners are you going to be waving around on Friday?
Yes, it’s going to be on Friday afternoon from five to seven, but we’ll probably start a little bit before that. You’d have to be with us on Thursday, Wednesday night or tonight. We’ll be discussing and looking into various banners, I think, to see what creativity comes out.
It’s a serious kind of a protest with placards and people in the street outside their offices?
Yes, so one of the things that we will be doing, obviously one of the key things is to – what we want to come from this is exposure on Bell Pottinger, standing up against them and what that represents and also exposing it to the British. Obviously, the British public – well, it’s a bit of an embarrassment to the country to have a British firm that’s meddling in the sovereignty of another nation, so hopefully that exposure and already we’ve seen one or two Tweets from high profile people. For example, Piers Morgan and some other people, so it’s getting some exposure. We want to push that and hopefully get some press coverage, but then also that accountability, that driving for justice to be done relating to Bell Pottinger, but then also we want to try and turn it around and show a face of defiance against this racial divisive campaigning and actually turn it into a reason to prove that we are actually unified.
What we’ll be doing is running a hashtag stronger than Bell Pottinger and that’s where we’ll be posting our photos of the day on. My hope is that these photos will be spread and that people will pick up on this stronger than Bell Pottinger and what it represents. It’s one taking a stand against exploitation, against racism and two, also the stronger part is actually saying, “We won’t be pushed down and subverted by companies like Bell Pottinger”. The South African resolve is stronger than that and we realis that the only future is a racially unified future and that’s the message we want to put out there. We’ve seen a lot of negativity on social media, so hopefully this can become a symbol of positivity, so what I’d ideally like to see is people just posting photos of groups of friends and selfies, multiracial, celebrating the racial unity in defiance of Bell Pottinger’s campaigning.
There was supposed to be a protest outside Bell Pottinger’s offices but they resigned the Gupta account so only a few people turned up. Were you involved with putting that together and do you think it was the right thing to have done at that point?
I wouldn’t be able to say if it’s the right thing or not, but we weren’t involved in running that campaign or protest.
That was spontaneous from concerned Saffers in London.
Yes, I’m not sure exactly, but it was spontaneous action and I think activism is really good. Where we have to be a little bit cautious, obviously if we are doing anything under the guise of DA Abroad, we have to make sure that things don’t get hijacked, that we have to do a bit of a risk assessment because otherwise it can be quite dangerous. If we have a pure intention but someone else hijacked something or if there are other ulterior motives, then that can be a little bit dangerous for us. Therefore, we do have to be quite careful and I think at the time we didn’t really have the time to do all the necessary checks and so on.
— Amanda Watson (@_amandzing) July 7, 2017
Did you go along to that march?
I wasn’t able to go along to that march, no, but I do know some people that went along.
There weren’t that many people….
I don’t think there were many people, but I think Bell Pottinger is no stranger to protests. I think they had some people superglued to their doors not so long ago. Interestingly enough, I think there are eight floors in the company, so every time there’s a protest, I have no doubt that the other companies probably put pressure on the landlord and the landlord probably puts pressure on Bell Pottinger. I mean, there are many different facets, many different affects that these protests have and I think all of it culminates in adding pressure.
How many people are you expecting on Friday?
Alec, it’s difficult to say with these sorts of things. I would take a guesstimate; my range would probably be quite large because you never know. With these things, when it’s with intent, certain things can go viral, certain things won’t. We’d be happy with just a show of 20 to 30 people. If it picks up, we obviously have a very short time frame, if it picks up and also a contingent on people being able to get there at the time (it is towards the end of the working day), then hopefully we might see 75 to 100 people. I won’t consider it a failure if we get 30 though. I think the show is definitely the key intent, but I hope everyone who can; who’s a South African who is offended by what Bell Pottinger has done makes an effort to get there.
As far as the police are concerned, do you need permission to do this?
Yes, we’re practiced at arranging these sorts of things and we have to get clearance from the council and the police.
And you have?
That’s all been done, yes.
Will van der Merwe is with DA Abroad.