It’s a little awkward writing an article in which you are one of the prime subjects (or is that suspects?), because part of the role of a good journalist means attempting to leave your personality and bias at the door when reporting on the events of the day. In entering the fray here by describing my interactions with the team at Bell Pottinger, I hope we can advance the national discourse on what has really happened in our country regarding state capture.
My role as the editor of Mineweb for Moneyweb meant that events surrounding a mine owned by a JSE-listed company and global mining behemoth, Glencore, fell directly into my ambit. Myself and a few other journalists from Moneyweb began writing about Glencore, Optimum and the relationship with Eskom, when problems began to surface around June 2015. This eventually lead to the decision by Glencore to place the mine into business rescue in August 2015, subsequently followed by Tegeta taking operational control in January 2016.
The interaction with the team at Bell Pottinger commenced shortly thereafter. My primary contact was with Victoria Geoghegan and Nick Lambert. At Oakbay’s offices, I would later meet Philip Peck and David Bass. They presented themselves as being contracted to Oakbay Investments, the primary holding company of the Guptas that was run by Nazeem Howa at the time. This was perfectly plausible – Bell Pottinger had a number of South African clients including Remgro, Investec, Tharisa Plc, and Pan African Resources. As a mining journalist, I had previously interacted with various Bell Pottinger staff.
As we would later learn, Bell Pottinger was being remunerated rather handsomely – £100 000 a month excluding costs. And there were costs. Most of the direct interactions involved breakfast or coffee at the Michelangelo Hotel, where Nick and Victoria would stay for days at a time. I seem to recall they were often out twice a month working on the account, and I doubt they flew economy when commuting!
While the interaction began via email and telephone shortly after Tegeta took control of Optimum in January, the deal was only consummated in April. But communication really started ratcheting up when Carte Blanche broke the story of the “loan” Eskom made to Tegeta to enable it to pay for Optimum, which broke in early June. I was invited to a breakfast with Victoria and Nick in early July, at the Michelangelo. True to form, and not unexpectedly, Nick peppered me with questions on my impressions of what was going on, what I thought of Oakbay and the family.
Towards the end of the appointment, one of the two mentioned “another project” they were working on. It had to do with the idea of economic exclusion and the lack of participation of huge swathes of the country’s population in the formal economy due to a variety of reasons, and how we could find solutions to overcoming it in South Africa. I was asked if this was something Moneyweb covered, or would cover. As a financial news and information website I thought it would most certainly be relevant, and the subject was of great personal interest to me, so I explained that we would be interested in doing so, and that I would undertake to write or produce the content myself.
As this discussion progressed in various formats over the coming weeks, their suggested theme for this project became “economic apartheid/need for economic emancipation”, whereas I wanted to call it “finding the rainbow” or something along those lines. I regarded this as a fundamentally noble undertaking – and still do.
I inquired a number of times as to who was behind this project – who’s initiative it was and specifically, who was bankrolling it. (It seemed substantial resources were available to tell the story. I was given strong indications that there would be a budget to fly staff to various places within the Republic to shoot and edit video if needs be.) But I never got a straight answer. My impression was that it seemed to be a faction within the ANC, or maybe a business person strongly linked with the ruling party that wanted to start a conversation about changing the structure of the economy. Looking back now, this was naïve to say the least.
Email sent touching on subjects post the breakfast in July – note the last point:
On 21 Jul 2016, at 7:16 PM, Nick Lambert <NLambert@bellpottinger.com> wrote:
Ok – we’ll hope Ryk surfaces eventually!
As an aside, thought the speech by David Lipton (no. 2 at the IMF) at Wits Business School a couple of days ago was fascinating, given what we discussed at our recent breakfast. In short:
- Economic exclusion and income inequality is a legacy of the apartheid era
- Inclusion of the excluded one-third of South Africans could and should be a source of growth and dynamism for the generation to come
- Youths in townships have no role models in terms of people with jobs
- Big business and banks in SA maintain entry barriers against their potential competitors – i.e. SMEs and the unemployed
- There are very few retail banks and their fees are high. SMEs can’t access banking services. Barriers to entry into the industry favour existing financial institutions
- Corporate South Africa enjoy very high profit margins, often 50% higher than in other countries. These margins are often built upon barriers that hurt both consumers and block potential competitors
- Many of the policies that SA needs to implement fly in the face of the current, established interests
I distinctly remember at the early stages of this engagement, Victoria and Nick told me they had conducted extensive research that they would make available to me. Further, using the contacts of the people behind this idea, they would make a number of high-profile business and political leaders available to me, as you can see from the following email:
On 01 Aug 2016, at 1:41 PM, Victoria Geoghegan <VGeoghegan@bellpottinger.com> wrote:WarrenPhilip, copied, will send through the research we have.Here is a list of some of the people that have agreed to talk on economic apartheid. We are adding to this list all the time so if there is a particular type of spokesperson or a particular issue you want to cover let us know – we can discuss further tomorrow.
- Failings of ANC and the need for land reform: Andile Mngxitama (Black First Land First)
- ANC and the struggle of entrepreneurs: Lindiwe Zulu (Minister of Small Business)
- Power/mining sector: Dr Baldwin Ngubane (Chairman of Eskom)
- Access to capital markets, agriculture and entrepreneurs: Tshepo Kgadima (CEO of LontohCoal – a coal & mining exploration company)
- Need for Education reform: Jerome Lawrence (a high school teacher) and a ‘Fees must fall’ representative
- Struggles of entrepreneurs: Dumisa Hlatshwayo (Principal at Nex Rubica Capital – an Johannesburg & London-based, boutique investment bank), Terry Rosenberg (Chairman of Oakbrook Holdings), Winston Innes and Craig Kruger(LimitlessWorld Petroleum – a Durban-based natural resources company)
- Black business: Thero Setiloane (Business Leadership South Africa) and Black Business Council
- Historical context of the ANC: Kebby Maphatsoe (Deputy Minister of The Department of Military Veterans) and Phatse Justice Piitso (Former Ambassador to the republic of Cuba and former provincial secretary of the SACP)Best,Victoria
It just so happens that the four political figures offered up, all happened to have a strong affiliation with President Jacob Zuma, and, as we would later learn for Mngxitama and Ngubane in particular, a very good relationship with the Guptas too.
At the same time this narrative was being crafted, Bell Pottinger was simultaneously defending the Guptas relationship with the president, as well as creating another narrative that the family were “disrupters”. This began in a number of interactions with Oakbay executives and Bell Pottinger, which eventually culminated in Oakbay presenting their financial results at the JSE to show how little of their revenue came from government contracts and how, in fact, the Guptas were really good businessmen.
The narrative was created about how the family and the company were “outsiders” (as immigrants) to the country and also outsiders to the “establishment”. As such, they revelled in this and through hard work and innovation took pride in challenging the establishment. Of course, this was soon linked to the idea that Oakbay were “black-owned” (a point I will confront in another article).
These sentiments rather curiously appeared to be recited almost line-by-line by Hamza Farooqui when I interviewed him about buying a bank with Salim Essa. “We want to create a black-owned bank that will challenge the status quo and fund (black) entrepreneurs in the same way Stephen Koseff rattled the establishment with Investec,” was the gist. Ditto for the guys at Trillian. In fact, so similar were the sentiments Farooqui articulated when consulting notes in front of him, that I would put money on the fact they were probably prepared by Bell Pottinger or Oakbay themselves.
In a beautiful arc, the idea of economic exclusion (an accurate reality, no doubt) and a “black” outsider challenging the status quo, was finally married to the idea that their progress would be challenged by the enemy that would use all means possible, including by casting aspersion on their reputation, to stunt their success. And who did that devil incarnate turn out to be, none other than White Monopoly Capital! A racially-loaded distraction had been created to distract us from the state looting that was underway hand-over-fist.
Evidently, as we have now learnt, this message was pumped out and repeated by bots on Twitter, by the leaders of Black Land First and The Progressive Professionals Forum, and by all of the president’s men. (As an aside, do you remember the racially loaded attack Brian Molefe undertook at The New Age breakfast shortly after resigning from Eskom?)
Of course, the economic apartheid/economic emancipation project fizzled out as all hell broke loose with the revelations contained in the State of Capture report. It slipped my mind until earlier this year when revelations about Bell Pottinger meeting with the president surfaced, which forced them to issue a statement denying doing any work other than that related to representing Oakbay. I was about to stridently take it up with them when they suddenly terminated their relationship with the Guptas.
My experience suggests they were plotting the president’s bidding all along, right from the beginning. They cleverly wove what are accurate realities – economic exclusion, inequality, and the control of wealth by a small minority – into a narrative that represented the president’s friends in the best of lights – taking up the cause for the excluded black population against a nameless, faceless enemy. For a while, it was a good ploy, enough to distract us from what was really going on. But the relentless actions of the media, judiciary and civil society means we are much closer to the truth of what was happening. So I got played, yes. But it was by a masterclass in propaganda and deception. As they say, fool me once….