Bell Pottinger had an agenda from the beginning

And you could say they played me for a fool.
Nazeem Howa

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 <> 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


Cheers, Nick

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 <> wrote:
Philip, 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) 

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….

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(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.) ….. Warren, any seasoned journalist would have picked up vibes from such promises.

Dangerous negative narrative construct that really undermines SA.

Thanks for the story of your experience Warren, much appreciated.

Thompson clearly you was the patsy here!

The question has to be asked – how many other journo’s have/are also being played? Also, it is not inconceivable that Bell Pottinger had certain journo’s on their/Gupta’s payroll. So whether naive or contrived journalism is thrust upon us, the truth lies in facts. Investigative journo’s should have been awake to the now obvious spin much earlier and as such, had a professional obligation to expose this spin and report the facts. An apologetic ‘I got played’ doesn’t cut the mustard.

Apologies seldom do but what is the point of playing this one down? What does one actually expect?

In my defence this campaign did not get off the ground – it was purely conceptual in nature and there was no output. The other thing to bear in mind, was that there was no evidence at the time Bell Pottinger had a relationship with the President, and I clearly failed to make the connection. A review of the interviews and articles I wrote about Oakbay at the time suggests I was pretty robust in my skepticism as this story unfolded.

Well it did kind of get off the ground – you mention “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.” And don’t forget Molefe’s racially loaded comments at The New Age breakfast.

In short; I am a victim, they are wrong and I am right.
Try again!

Did you actually read the article?

What we can do in response is just boycott ALL comapnies/organisations where the Gupta tentacles have spread ….
like Sahara!? Also, SAA, PRASA, Eskom (if possible), SABC?, who else??

Good on you Warren for sharing the story. I disagree with the sentiment of horsetrader’s last sentence. Having been played and then manning up and telling us (as any good journo should) helps us understand just how insidious these people are. Thing is that all the other journo’s that were fooled would rather keep quite and hide their embarrassment – and from your telling there must have many other journos, these guys would have spread the net very, very wide.

Tell us though what has happened to Bell Pottinger’s relationship with their other South African clients (Remgro, Investec, Tharisa Plc, Pan African Resources, etc)? Are they still serving them? Is so then those company’s have been duped far worse…

They all terminated their relationship with Bell Pottinger.

Good to know. I recall an article along those lines during the time of all the protest actions. However, is this the story put out there by BP themselves (and we see how trustworthy they are – they’d likely even today defend tobacco with stories that smoking improves one’s health if paid enough) or is the word on terminations direct from the company’s that were their clients?

It goes down so much better to say something like “I should have detected that I was being played, supposedly to be captured, but I didn’t. I learned something, I won’t fall for it again.”

An interesting read, thank you for sharing!
I believe this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I have basic qualifications in PR and plenty journo experience.
And for a long time, I have been saying that there has been a master strategist/manipulator advising the president.
Case in point: The delay of the Marikana report. The findings if not managed correctly (and believable scapegoats assigned) would put the state into a very bad light). After a very long unexplained delay, it was suddenly released.
And the consequence of its release?
The #PayBackTheMoney/Nkandla scandal had gained massive momentum and as a result, the EFF had made significant political gains. The narrative it was presenting to it’s supporters was making it more and more difficult for the president to deny wrong doing. Especially when considering the EFF strongest based of support is from the poor and disenfranchised – the very people who had rallied to push the president to power. It had nearly reached the point where the president and ANC was going to have to take drastic action regarding Nkandla.
By releasing the report at that time, all momentum was lost. It was the ultimate diversion and the #PayBackTheMoney campaign deflated. All attention was placed on Marikana and months of debate, character assignation and recriminations followed. The national narrative had been effectively manipulated and redirected.
For me, with my experience and training, that was confirmation that a master strategist/image manager/manipulator was at work.
Since it happened, I have been telling people what I believe, but very few have agreed. Most have brushed it off as something “from a soap opera” and even reacted with ridicule.
But I know I am right as it is precisely what I would have suggested was needed.
The difference is, that for me, the mere suggestion of interfering in matters of state which ultimately impact on every South African, would have made me ill.
I have integrity – I act with integrity!

Warren – I’m intrigued by your article because I can absolutely understand why you (or any other liberally-minded South African regardless, dare I say, of colour) would recognise the economic disparities that were formed by 48 years – or 400 years – of apartheid.

Then, one must accept that PR companies role in life is to manage a narrative. With that in mind, unless you take an entirely jaundiced view of the entire PR industry (which you might do, but let’s give them the industry-benefit of the doubt)the specific evidence of the #guptaleaks, i.e. emails to and from Geoghegan look far more benign.

Specifically – and here comes my point – there is absolutely no evidence that Geoghehan or anyone else at Potty Bells have ever used the term WMC.

I have googled WMC and found the term used in a 2014 article on Marikana. It’s not new.

So again, whilst Potty Bells are totally guilty of wanting to move the narrative to a historically and valid “economic emancipation” and even “economic apartheid” one (who would disagree with the validity of either term?), I think perhaps that the law of unintended consequences came into play as they inadvertently opened up Pandora’s Box, with other players – not them – moving the spin onto WMC.

Unintended consequences perhaps – but they must have been – initially – giving themselves high-fives as WMC took off. Until they realised the couldn’t control the backlash, amongst the whole house of cards coming down.

That’s my theory – which kinda aligns with your story.

I may be wrong – but right now there is a missing piece of #guptaleaks evidence that Potty Bells every suggested WMC.

Your thoughts?

Naturally I started off giving them the benefit of the doubt. I think what they have been really good at is using real issues to paint a narrative of something for nefarious purposes. If you do your research I think you will find that they suggested recycling the term “White Monopoly Capital” to round out the narrative of the family challenging the status quo. So while they didn’t invent it, they intentionally wanted to employ it.

I think that misdirecting the discussion based on semantics and technicalities is pure sophistry.

Warren this is a Must Read for all of the Mzansi today. Really sad that they thought of abusing you like they did with Stephen Grootes of EWN. I hate to see and read how Journalist intelligence is undermined by those who abuse legitimate media houses that so many of us rely on for information and education. I strongly believe that the Media should be protected and defended by all.

While competing publications and sanctimonious traditional editors might take a dim view of this, I believe it is innovative and refreshing.

The best way to deal with intrigue and fake news is to lay it all out in the open (even when duped) – for readers to decide. This is, after all, the point of real journalism.

I believe that the way Warren has handled this is very good – an inside view of how fake news is concocted – and the lengths people go to manufacture news. Inevitably the ‘anyone could see what was going on’ brigade will take a different view – after the event. To me, however, the piece comes across as clear and sincere. It’s clarity – in retrospect – probably belies how, at the time, things were less clear and obvious.

In an era of fake news I think this kind of journalism is an interesting – and welcome – new development.

They got away with it. Damage is done, masses persuaded, white monopoly capital still seen as real, mission completed.

The scariness is the ratio of PR specialists relative to journalists. You can easily mislead the public with propaganda, especially when they are angry. Cue,all populist movements.

As Yoda said “Fear is the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

South Africans are not stupid, and nor should we accept continuation and perpetuation that our intellect is assumed to be ignorant 9 times out of 10. One thing is for sure, You cannot have unintelligent, racist politicians educate us as to what the story is. Well done Warren

It is of more than passing interest that Remgro is also a client of Bellpottinger. Surely it is a clash of interests as they are at the same time the mastermind portraying Johann Rupert, chairman of Remgro, as the nr 1 villain of the “White Monopolistic Capital” scenario with which they are attempting to whitewash (sic) the Guptas-Zuma conspiracy which aims to capture the government of SA. This explains the attack on ABSA in the Reserve Bank loan for Bankorp. For the fuller picture, it would be interesting to know more of the role Russia’s pres. Poetin is playing in this high stake gamble to capture the SA mining sector.

End of comments.




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