The extraordinary emails released on Sunday by both the Sunday Times and City Press have once again cast a light on the role played by British PR firm Bell Pottinger.
The firm dropped the family as clients last month in the wake of protests against their company for allegedly driving the attempt to repair the Gupta family’s image in South Africa.
The campaign against the firm accused it of intentionally sowing the seeds of racial division in order to distract from allegations of state capture by the Gupta family and President Jacob Zuma.
Bell Pottinger describes itself as the largest UK-based public relations consultancy measured by 2010 fee income.
Oakbay, the holding company of the Guptas’ mining and media interests, agreed to the termination of the contract, though Bell Pottinger protested the allegations against it had been a smear campaign and were baseless.
However, the allegedly leaked emails reveal that President Zuma’s son Duduzane, a close Gupta associate, appeared to have been the lead man, with Bell Pottinger, in the fightback strategy for the embattled family.
The emails suggest that there was a plot hatched to have Hamza Farooqui, the managing director for WorldSpace South Africa and a partner to a Gupta associate, Salim Essa, accuse the then deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, of corruption.
The statement against Jonas was allegedly drafted by a Bell Pottinger staff member, Nick Lambert, shortly after Jonas revealed that he had been offered an alleged gigantic bribe by the Guptas to betray the then finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, a bribe he claimed to have declined.
The statement would have alleged that an “inducement fee” and other perks were paid to Jonas, with Farooqui even going as far as to say he would have been prepared to make this statement under oath to “shed light on corruption within the finance ministry”.
However, the statement was never released due to concerns by senior Bell Pottinger executive Victoria Geoghegan, about legal issues pertaining to it.
Times Media reports that it attempted to get comment from Farooqui on the statement, but neither he, the Gupta family spokesperson nor Duduzane Zuma responded.
The Gupta also oversaw other projects, including doing press statement for the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association and coaching and giving notes to ANC Youth League president Collen Maine. Times Media, the group primarily responsible for the publication of the email correspondends reports that they could not obtain comment from these affected parties either.
Bell Pottinger was allegedly being paid a retainer of 100 000 British pounds a month for its services.
According to an investigation by the Sunday Times earlier this year, Bell Pottinger took on the Gupta family as clients in 2016 to try to improve their image, and the chosen strategy was to target white business leaders as a distraction from serious allegations of state capture. The emails reveal, however, that they also inserted themselves into various other political debates, including drafting statements on how to respond to the Economic Freedom Fighters.
One of the strategies was apparently to drive a predominantly social media narrative that “white monopoly capital”, the SA Communist Party and National Treasury had been standing in the way of transforming the South African economy.
The phrase “white monopoly capital” has become a major feature of mainstream political discourse this year, with even President Zuma using it.
Founding member of Bell Pottinger Tim Bell reportedly left his own firm with key staff members, in apparent disgust over the plan.
He alleged that arms deal facilitator Fana Hlongwane and President Zuma’s Gupta-associate son Duduzane paid the firm 100 000 British pounds to start working and several meetings were allegedly attended by both men.
The PR plan allegedly also involved Andile Mngxitama and his Black First Land First Organisation, Mzwanele Manyi and his Decolonisation Foundation, and others.
It reportedly also involved using, among other things, Twitter bots involved in a fake news campaign to support messages critical of white monopoly capital and be defensive of the Guptas.
Last year, South African billionaire businessman Rupert claimed Bell Pottinger was behind an ongoing attempt to link him to “state capture” activities.