New details have emerged of how the Guptas and President Jacob Zuma separately roped in public relations consultants to help them win support after the backlash that followed the axing of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister.
Documents seen by the Sunday Times as well as interviews with key players reveal that an aggressive strategy to portray the Guptas as victims of a conspiracy involving "white monopoly capital" caused a major rift in British PR firm Bell Pottinger - resulting in the exit of one of the company's founders, apparently in protest.
The documents and sources also confirm that one of Bell Pottinger's longest-standing South African clients, luxury brands company Richemont, cut ties with the PR firm amid accusations that it was behind the targeting of its chairman, billionaire Johann Rupert, as the face of "white monopoly capital".
It has also been established that around the time the Guptas hired Bell Pottinger, Zuma was in talks with Durban PR specialist Vuyo Mkhize about the possibility of outsourcing the Presidency' s communications function to him .
All of this happened at the start of 2016, when Zuma and the Guptas were under pressure after Nene's axing and amid reports that they had sought to capture the National Treasury by deploying Gupta-linked individuals to the department and the finance ministry.
A document circulating in government circles, and which appears to have been compiled with the assistance of former Bell Pottinger staffers, makes startling claims about the firm's role in a social media drive that sought to turn the tables on those accusing the Guptas of "state capture".
The PR firm "sought to divert public outcry towards the Gupta family and refocus attention upon other examples of state interference and capture, notably by 'white monopoly capital'", the document says. "With a heavy focus upon use of social media, a series of fake bloggers, commentators and Twitter users have been launched in an effort to manipulate public opinion ."
Soon after Bell Pottinger took up the contract, said to be worth £100000 (about R1.5-million) a month, there was indeed a massive social media campaign targeting the Treasury, sections of the media and business personalities deemed to be opposed to Zuma and the Gupta family.
Bell Pottinger has denied any involvement in the social media campaign, also saying its contract was with Oakbay Investments and not the Gupta family, who had resigned from all directorships in their companies in April last year.
"To clarify, we have absolutely nothing to do with the so-called Twitter-bots phenomenon or any inappropriate personal attacks on journalists. Our role is to correct misrepresentations of Oakbay and communicate the company's belief that its competitive, disruptive, job-creating philosophy is what South Africa needs to achieve a genuine transformation," said Victoria Geoghegan, a partner and director at Bell Pottinger.
However, Rupert this week confirmed that Richemont ended its 20-year relationship with Bell Pottinger because of its belief that the PR firm was behind the campaign.
The "evidence" of the PR firm's involvement "came from impeccable sources within Bell Pottinger who were unhappy with the goings-on", he said.
"They were not confronted by me personally. The matter was raised by Richemont staff when they became aware of it during last year," Rupert said.
A former Bell Pottinger insider told the Sunday Times that the fallout over the Guptas and Richemont's unhappiness led to founding member Tim Bell leaving the firm in August to start another PR consultancy, Sans Frontières Associates.
He took with him several key Bell Pottinger staff, including Jonathan Lehrle. This was denied by the company, which said Bell and Lehrle were the lead people on the account.
Bell himself is an old hand at political communication and first became prominent in South Africa when he took on former president FW de Klerk as a client as South Africa was preparing for its first democratic elections.
It has also been revealed that businessman Fana Hlongwane, whose name featured prominently in the arms deal scandal, played a key role in establishing contact between the firm and the Guptas.
"We were introduced by a gentleman called Fana [Hlongwane]. They paid three months' fees of a £100000 a month in advance and the brief was to improve their image, get them more respect and a better understanding of what their business was about," said a former Bell Pottinger staffer.
He revealed that several meetings were attended by Hlongwane and Duduzane Zuma.
At one such meeting, he said, the family briefed their new PR firm on perceived attacks on them from "white monopoly capital", the SACP and the Treasury.
The document doing the rounds, titled "Bell Pottinger PR support for the Gupta family" also says that:
The company either helped set up or funded two organisations, the Decolonisation Foundation and Andile Mngxitama's Black First, Land First, that were critical of the Treasury and "white monopoly capital"; and
The company is behind the creation of Twitter bots - automated Twitter handles that churn out tweets, hashtags and links to or tweets purporting to be by organisations, and news websites - dedicated to exposing the menace of "white monopoly capital" and its alleged influence on South Africa's finance ministry.
"Other tactics have included the launch and support of foundations such as Black First, Land First, which, as was reported in Business Day, suddenly appeared on the scene with murky sources of funding," says the report.
Decolonisation Foundation head Mzwanele Manyi said there was no direct link between himself, his foundation, Bell Pottinger or the Gupta family. "Let's just be clear: white monopoly capital is first and foremost a reality in South Africa, it's not just some narrative," said Manyi.
Black First, Land First did not respond to questions.
As the Guptas began working with Bell Pottinger to clean up their image, Zuma was working on his own fightback plan after public pressure had forced him to withdraw his appointment of Des van Rooyen as Nene's successor.
It has emerged that he held a meeting with Durban PR expert Mkhize at his Nkandla home in December 2015, when he sought assistance to "regroup from the loss of influence and power".
Sources with intimate knowledge of the talks said Mkhize proposed a long-term strategy that would help Zuma win back the public's confidence in his office and would include having the president reach out to business and other stakeholders seen as being opposed to him.
He apparently feared a massive walkout by senior staff in the civil service, especially the Treasury, and wanted to use the media to win their trust back.
Like the Guptas, the president saw the Treasury as impeding "transformation" and wanted assistance in getting the public to support his argument so that when he next acted, there would not be the kind of public anger that had greeted Nene's axing.
According to the sources, the plan proposed by Mkhize to Zuma would have taken about 18 months to carry out and would have resulted in stakeholders being "prepared" for any possible changes in the government that the president wanted to make.
"But before this plan could be rolled out, there were certain concessions that needed to be made. The president had to retreat from the Nkandla battle - and resolve the chaos at the SABC. The advice was: 'Retreat from those. They will only serve to weaken you.'"
A source said Zuma was told: "It needs to be clear who the principal is. You are the principal. You must isolate yourself from the Gupta family. It is impossible to run any programme while you're defending and holding on to them."
Although Mkhize continued to have meetings with Presidency officials about these plans until February last year, they were never actioned. Sources said Mkhize was dumped because of his suggestion that Zuma cut ties with the Guptas - something that was seen as non-negotiable.
Approached for comment about his PR plans for Zuma, Mkhize said: "I am not in a position to comment on any of this as the 'focus group' discussions you are referring to [with certain politicians, businesspeople and editors as part of my research into the Presidency brief] were on a strictly 'off-the-record' basis."
Zuma's spokesman, Bongani Ngqulunga, said: "The Presidency ... does not utilise any private company or individuals outside of government [for external communications support]."
Fana Hlongwane could not be reached for comment, but the Guptas, through Oakbay, said yesterday: "All of your allegations against Oakbay and its shareholders are just more fake news. Oakbay, its shareholders and its advisers have absolutely nothing to do with any campaign or the so-called 'Twitter bot' phenomenon."
- Additional reporting by Jan-Jan Joubert