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Bell Pottinger has toxified political debate in South Africa

You don’t have to look for racial inequality when you land in South Africa. It is everywhere. It is in the spatial arrangements: the pristine formerly whites-only suburbs (where a few of us black people now live) and their high walls, sitting miles away from the sprawling black squatter camps and townships that provide labour for the still – two decades after democracy – white-dominated economy.

The face of unemployment, poverty and poor education is black. The face of prosperity and privilege is white. The numbers are staggering: half of all South Africans are living below the poverty line, and three out of five black people are poor, while poverty is almost nonexistent among white people. In June unemployment among black people was 31%; among white people it was just 6.6%.

This is the powder keg in which Bell Pottinger founder Tim Bell arrived two years ago, when he met the Gupta family, notorious friends of the president, Jacob Zuma. The family is described by academics from four of our top universities as having staged a “silent coup” in South Africa by “capturing the state”.

The academics asserted that the Gupta family – which is in business with Zuma’s son Duduzane and whom the president defends as his “friends” – appoint ministers and senior civil servants to pass government contracts on to them. (Though the Guptas and Zumas all deny any wrongdoing.)

Cynically, Bell Pottinger invented, hyped and disseminated a message that it described as “economic emancipation” of blacks. An “us and them” strategy was devised, based on race: the “whites” are wealthy, racist and benefit their own to the exclusion of blacks. Its aim was to divert South Africa’s attention and deflect criticism away from President Zuma.

They chose the Afrikaner billionaire Johann Rupert as their fall guy, and used him in Twitter messages, Google and Facebook advertisements, newspaper articles, television features and in political messages and speeches by key Zuma allies. The scale of it was incredible. The Times reports that “participants in the fake news empire spread 220,431 tweets between July 2016 and July 2017”.

Did the campaign work? Bell Pottinger and the Guptas did not invent our racial problems. But they exploited them ruthlessly. They threw a match at the tinderbox of inequality and frustration that has persisted since 1994.

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