Spin doctors of smear: PR firm conspired with Guptas to paint Mcebisi Jonas as corrupt

30 May 2017 - 09:29 By SABELO SKITI and SIPHE MACANDA
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PLOT VICTIM: Mcebisi Jonas, former deputy finance minister
PLOT VICTIM: Mcebisi Jonas, former deputy finance minister

Gupta family associates plotted with UK public relations firm Bell Pottinger to launch a smear campaign against the Treasury by painting former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas as corrupt, leaked e-mails show.

They also show that President Jacob Zuma's son, Duduzane, put himself in charge of a fightback by the Gupta family as they sought to counter reports about their relationship with several government leaders.

Damning e-mails exposing the extent of the Gupta's control over the state also shed more light on the family's relationship with the controversial UK PR firm.

Correspondence shows that the plot against Jonas was hatched a day after he said he turned down a bribe offer, which included him being appointed finance minister after the removal of Nhlanhla Nene.

The parties drafted a press release purporting to come from Hamza Farooqui, managing director of WorldSpace SA, and a partner of Gupta associate Salim Essa in Vardonspan, the company that wanted to buy Habib Bank.

Farooqui's statement, drafted by Bell Pottinger employee Nick Lambert on March 17, read: "I can confirm that I paid inducement fee to Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas, through the chief of staff to the Ministry of Finance, Pule Setai, and relative of Jonas's, as well as provided other benefits, such as flight upgrades and luxury hotel rooms. I am willing to sign an affidavit in support of the above statement. I am making this statement in a bid to shed light on corruption within the Ministry of Finance."

The statement was, however, not released because Bell Pottinger's Victoria Geoghegan later said the media would not run the story because of the possibility that it would provoke litigation.

Farooqui read, but did not respond to, a Whatsapp query from The Times about the statement.

Gupta family lawyer Gert van der Merwe has released a statement saying that Sunday's reports relied on "undisclosed documents and assumptions of impropriety resulting in a clear intention to influence political perception, which is another example of fake news".

Van der Merwe said the Gupta family denied any wrongdoing or paying any amounts to ministers or the president, and reserved its rights.

Duduzane Zuma, who did not respond to numerous requests for comment, was fingered in a Sunday Times report yesterday for his influence over the government.

The e-mails show other work done by Bell Pottinger as part of its public relations work for Oakbay and the Gupta family, which included looking at and revising press statements made by the Umkhonto WeSizwe Military Veterans Association and drawing up notes for ANC Youth League president Collen Maine ahead of a rally in February last year. Central to the work done were former Oakbay CEO Nazeem Howa and Bell Pottinger's Geoghegan and Lambert, who seem to have overseen most of it.

During that time, the PR company discussed the possibility of lobbying the "ANC or constituent bodies" to react to a press release issued by the EFF in Gauteng that threatened to drive the Guptas out of the province.

Geoghegan asked whether the party could not be lobbied to say something along the lines of: "The EFF comments fly in the face of the revolution against apartheid: threatening the safety and security of workers and committing to physically drive people out of South Africa on the basis of their race is behaviour unbecoming of our people, our democracy and our constitution."

The company had also told Duduzane Zuma it saw its role as deflecting criticism directed at President Zuma and turning the nation's focus to the need for "economic emancipation".

In return for these services and others, Bell Pottinger asked for a £100,000 a month retainer, excluding costs, such as those for travel for a team that visited South African every month.

In a responding e-mail, Duduzane Zuma thanks Bell Pottinger and asks that the company assist him in a campaign he was undertaking involving research he had done.

"It will also require a visual campaign of sorts: T-shirts/banners etc where I will require assistance, whether it be in the designing and creating a hard hitting message along the lines of the #EconomicEmancipation or whatever it is," he said.

Though it is not clear whether these campaigns were ever executed, the ethos is similar to that of the #WhiteMonopolyCapital campaign which, the Sunday Times previously reported, was also influenced by Bell Pottinger.

It was reported at the time that an aggressive strategy was adopted to portray the Guptas as victims of a conspiracy involving "white monopoly capital".

At the time all involved denied a conspiracy but the e-mails show there was a concerted effort to drum up popular support for the family against what was perceived to be a "media onslaught".

This included roping in the ANC's Youth League and the military veterans.

Attempts to get comment from youth league national spokesman Mlondi Mkhize were unsuccessful.

In response to the allegations, Bell Pottinger commented, "Virtually everything that has been written to date about Bell Pottinger's work in South Africa for Oakbay Investments, has been inaccurate or based on fabricated documents. Bell Pottinger ceased work for Oakbay in April 2017."

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