Bell Pottinger tapped a potent struggle allegory
In light of the apology by Bell Pottinger for its role in diverting attention from the looting of South Africa's finances by friends and political allies of President Jacob Zuma, it is pertinent to consider how it was able to carry out its brief with so much success.
South Africa is a wounded and emotionally deformed society. After centuries of colonialism and apartheid during which black people were violently and systematically stripped of assets and prevented from progressing, there are few carefully constructed conspiracies that do not find traction if the main figure of suspicion is white or Western.
First, for a while the most common debate on radio, in newspapers and on social media concerned "whiteness" and racism, and it consumed so many people that it superseded any attempt to find rational solutions to some of the problems of which whiteness and racism were said to be a symptom.
This often acerbic debate took place against the backdrop of precipitous economic decline, deteriorating government finances and a total collapse of governance in the executive arm of the state and its agencies. Most people can either see or feel the impact of this degeneration. State remittance recipients now surpass those who work and pay taxes.Second, through and after the years of struggle, various enemies, real and imagined, have been used to rally people behind the ANC despite incidences, previously few and far between but now rife, where it failed in its historical mission.
The sinews that hold society together are strained as the concept of accountability has long since lost meaning. We have become used to the spirited defence of the president's excesses and ministers who act with impunity. Such an environment is fertile for purveyors of miracles and oversimplified explanations for deep and complex problems.
Third, black people are exhausted by the proliferation of corruption in which those exposed by the media are almost always black. The proportion thereof has accelerated in the Zuma years. In search of a different narrative (rather than a solution to the problem) some began to blame the media for covering white corruption without actually blowing the whistle on it. When I was editor of Business Day, I often asked people to pass on such information to us, and there was not a single instance when this occurred.
It is into this environment that Bell Pottinger was inserted. The term "white monopoly capital" was skilfully inserted into local jargon. We have a history in black struggle politics in which "capital" has always been positioned to mean "white business" and therefore to be an enemy of the black majority because it benefited from colonialism and apartheid.
There is no mystery, really. The Rupert and Oppenheimer families entirely make sense as targets of such a perverse campaign. Many black people associate them with apartheid-era business. In fact it is exceptionally difficult for any old business conglomerate to extricate itself from that narrative and any accusation against individuals or companies that even loosely fit the bill is likely to stick. Bell Pottinger played this to a tee, keeping people occupied with this concept while the looting of South Africa's finances accelerated.