Bell Potts tokenism not enough, should be shut down – CEO Liliesleaf

JOHANNESBURG — In this second part of the BBC’s series on the controversial Gupta family and the role of British PR firm Bell Pottinger in the Zuptas’ propaganda campaign in South Africa, there are some strong words from ordinary South Africans about state capture. The BBC, in this radio broadcast, asked normal, unemployed South Africans on the street about what they thought about the country’s latest economic woes. Many of those interviewed said they’d like to see Jacob Zuma gone and blame him and his cronies for stealing billions (even trillions) of rands while placing a stranglehold on job creation. The BBC goes on to talk to many other people, including EFF leader Julius Malema and Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson, who largely plays down his company’s role in its massively controversial ‘white monopoly capital’ campaign. But it is the words from Nicholas Wolpe that sum up what many an angry South African would feel: that Bell Pottinger should be shut down and that the company is responsible for driving a knife into South Africa’s non-racial efforts. Wolpe is a white South African whose father fought to end Apartheid and whose uncle was on trial with Nelson Mandela. He now runs anti-Apartheid memorial Liliesleaf Farm and is the CEO of the Liliesleaf Trust. If his words don’t resonate with Bell Pottinger staff involved with the Guptas, then nothing will. – Gareth van Zyl

(You can read the full transcript of this interview below:)

“They have to use sunscreen because they don’t belong here. They must go back to their country where there’s no sun.”

“This country is ours. Africa is ours.”

This is SA in 2017.

All land in SA, all of it, belongs to us and all of it was taken from us.”

The British PR firm, Bell Pottinger, stands accused of the mounting racial tensions through their work for the controversial Gupta family but was the issue of economic apartheid manufactured by Bell Pottinger for a campaign?

BBC Newsnight focuses on Bell Pottinger.
BBC Newsnight focuses on Bell Pottinger.

In any good propaganda it needs to contain a kernel of truth.”

So, is economic apartheid a reality? Well, the gap between rich and poor is wider in SA than almost anywhere else in the world and they have some of the worst educational standards making it even harder for the poor to improve their lot. In the townships, the disparity is obvious.



What’s your name?


Precious, what do you want to be when you grow up?

“I want to be a doctor.”

Is this your daughter? She said she wants to be a doctor.

“Yes, it’s great.”

Are you working?

“No, I’m not working.”

Are there any jobs here?

“No, there’s nothing and we’ve been applying but no answers.”

How long have you been out of work?

“Five years now.”

Five years?


And out of your neighbours here, in Soweto, and people in your family. How many people are like you and struggling to find jobs?

“There are so many people applying, there’s no answers – no jobs.”

Do you think it will be different by the time your daughter grows up? Do you think she can be a doctor?


What needs to change?

“Maybe if we can get a new president maybe it will change.”

Here in Soweto some parts of the township have effectively become a tourist industry so, as you walk along the road there are stalls set out selling souvenirs, bright clothes, jewellery, but there’s no real model for the economic growth and a lot of the people here still don’t have jobs or any prospect of getting them.

Hi, how easy is it to get jobs in Soweto now?

Ai, it’s really hard mammy. As you can see us, we are not working but we are hustling.”

“Many of us go to school but we end up in the streets. It’s even worse now that our people are in charge, you see.”

Why is that?

Me, personally, I think maybe it was better off in apartheid days, you see because people used to get jobs.”

It’s really surprising for me to be standing here in the middle of Soweto very close to where Nelson Mandela lived and hear people saying it was better under apartheid.

Yes, I can still say it was better-off you see because now the government they only think for themselves and their families. The corruption rate is high. Everything is high because back then there were better decisions. I don’t say whites are better than blacks. I’m just saying their government was doing better before.”

These are exactly the people a campaign on economic apartheid should aim to help but the allegation is that Bell Pottinger was running a campaign that shifted the spotlight onto white business leaders and away from President Zuma’s leadership.

President Zuma doesn’t do any right for us or for our country. They’re eating a lot of money, billions, almost trillions and we’re suffering a lot. We’re suffering.”

“I say President Zuma needs to step down.”

Who would you all support?


“Zuma is the one who must withdraw – you are withdrawing the wrong person.”  

The EFF or Economic Freedom Fighters are a revolutionary militant socialist party led by the firebrand politician Julius Malema. They’ve become the third biggest party in SA and their members arrive in Parliament wearing matching red jumpsuits in solidarity with the labourers of the country.

The white monopoly…’

I’m just signing in here at the headquarters of the EFF and they ask for full names, date, company, reason for visit, firearm – yes or on? I think I might be a little bit blander than their average guest.

Julius Malema has spent years talking about white monopoly capital and the economic challenges facing the country so, how does he view the campaign by Bell Pottinger?

Economic Freedom Fighters’ deputy Floyd Shivambu (R) sits next to leader Julius Malema (C) during a media briefing in Alexander township near Sandton, South Africa August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Well, they’ve vulgarised the whole point. They just wanted to find something to hide their corruption and they used it in a manner that causes unnecessary divisions because if you use it for opportunistic reasons, to hide corruption of blacks and you say no, black corruption is not a problem. The problem is white monopoly capital. That’s absolute nonsense which we are not going to accept. The corruption of the Guptas held by Bell Pottinger must be exposed. It must be dealt with but it doesn’t mean that white monopoly capital is not a problem. It is a problem.”

But do you worry, and we saw it a bit with the Bell Pottinger campaign and what they were doing? Do you worry that by talking about white monopoly capital and making it the issue it might stir up the sort of anger which goes against the spirit of reconciliation?

“No, to speak about reality it is actually going to help us. When you deal with issues in an ore, genuine way you seek to resolve these imbalances. It will not cause problems unlike how Bell Pottinger was using it. They were using it not in a genuine way, not to resolve inequalities but they were using it to conceal crime and that is divisive. It all depends on how you carry out your message. We’ve been saying this. It has never caused divisions in the country. People have known and accepted that there is a certain phenomenon that we’re seeking to deal with.”

That’s really the crux, inequality and economic apartheid are very real but the campaign run by Bell Pottinger didn’t target the problems, which are holding back the very poorest in the townships like poor standards of education or a lack of access to the jobs market. Instead, it railed against the banking system after all 4 of the big banks in SA refused to give Guptas an account.

The Guptas and President Zuma have denied any involvement in corruption and the CE of Bell Pottinger, James Henderson, told me he refuted Julius Malema’s claims too.

There was certainly no intention or collaborating with corruption. We were trying to do a good job for a client in managing their reputation and defending them from a number of accusations. Some of which were within the political arena.”

Whatever the reasons behind the campaign it’s had a very real effect on the lives of ordinary South Africans.

“You could feel the systemic tension emerging. At one point, I said to a colleague of mine, I, as they say, a son of the ANC, felt uncomfortable. So, I can’t imagine how ordinary white people began to feel so their campaign was working because it was fostering a sense of anger – a sense of resentment. Everything that Mandela, the stalwarts of our liberation struggle were fighting against.”

Nicholas Wolpe is a white South African whose father fought to end apartheid and whose uncle was on trial with Nelson Mandela. He now runs Liliesleaf Farm, a memorial to the anti-Apartheid movement.

Nicholas Wolpe's father fought to end Apartheid and his uncle was on trial with Nelson Mandela. He now runs anti-Apartheid memorial Liliesleaf Farm and is the CEO of the Liliesleaf Trust.
Nicholas Wolpe’s father fought to end Apartheid and his uncle was on trial with Nelson Mandela. He now runs anti-Apartheid memorial Liliesleaf Farm and is the CEO of the Liliesleaf Trust.

“What Bell Pottinger did by coming in and taking something that is so sensitive, which is a political dynamite and utilised it for personal exploitation and gain. They have managed to inculcate into our vocabulary a terminology, which is cancerous. We are now battling that. The ANC in every single historical document you read says, ‘SA cannot fulfil its full potential unless it creates a non-racial society where all South Africans participate.’ And Bell Pottinger has come in and stuck a knife into the heart of that very ethos and fabric by exploiting something that is extremely sensitive and they’ve been malicious.”

Bell Pottinger has apologised now and they’ve sacked one of the people who was involved with the account and they’ve suspended a few more. Are you happy with that? Has that helped?

“That’s tokenism. You can’t suddenly once the horse has bolted and somebody closes the stable door and then find a few sacrificial lambs and say they behaved on their own. They were rouge PR publicists who had no mandate to do what they did. Bell Pottinger, as a company, must take responsibility for the damage that they have caused in this country. Damage that undermined our struggle and what so many people sacrificed for. If they had any appreciation for what Nelson stood for they would not have agreed to do what they were asked to do. Money would not have come into it. If there was any moral fibre in the leadership of Bell Pottinger, they would say, this is not acceptable.”

So, what would you like to see what Bell Pottinger do?

“Bell Pottinger should be put out of business for immoral business ethics. For the pain and suffering that has been caused by their immoral campaign. I definitely think the British Government should take steps.”

Not only do the Guptas and President Zuma deny these allegations but the CE of Bell Pottinger, James Henderson, says his company’s actions in SA have been misunderstood.

At worst, we were very naïve in what we got involved with but there was no, at any point, intention to create the impact that’s claimed that we created. We went out predominantly with a corporate campaign trying to handle an issue in a responsible way and I believe that that will come out. However, I believe there was naivety and that we were involved in a very political situation and we’ve allowed ourselves to become the story but the actions we’ve been accused of, in time, I hope it will come out that we did not do that and we have been called guilty before any real evidence has been shown of what we did do. We clearly take huge concern of this, which is why we commissioned a Herbet Smit Report to look into every aspect, every email, every document that was produced. The proposals I saw on this issue looked into corporate responsible proposals. They did not fuel racial tension or have an intention of doing so.”

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