50 People Who F***d Up South Africa: The Lost Decade by Alexander Parker and Tim Richman with cartoons by Zapiro

It took 350 years to come up with the list of shame for the original 50 People Who Stuffed Up South Africa, published to critical acclaim in 2010. But it’s taken only ten more years to come up with the next 50…

From Shaun Abrahams to Mosebenzi Zwane, 50 People Who F***ed Up South Africa is filled with the architects and beneficiaries of state capture who have defined The Lost Decade. There’s Dlamini, there’s Zuma and there’s Dlamini-Zuma. There are the Guptas, Geoghegan and Gigaba. There’s a malady of “M”s – Mabuza, Magashule, Mahumapelo (and many more mofos). There are the crony-corporate enablers and big business abusers. Importantly, there are clean takedowns of those who represent the scandals that will live in infamy when the history of this time is written: Eskom, Nkandla, Marikana, Life Esidimeni, Steinhoff, Bosasa, VBS Mutual Bank… And then there is the joker in the pack (Niehaus), the naked emperor (Survé), the zombie killer (Pistorius), the Twittering twit (Zille) and the twit who got past security (Thamsanqa Jantjie).

The end result is a readable, accessible, entertaining overview of South Africa’s recent political and socioeconomic landscape. Because sometimes humour (along with a clearly painted picture) really is the best coping mechanism…

A chapter from the book:

Victoria Geoghegan

b. 27 June 1983

Mind polluter; Gupta reputation launderer; architect of the destructive, racially divisive campaign to sustain state capture; cause of Bell Pottinger’s self-destruction; poster girl for amoral psycho-corporate public relations that sees no qualms in the destabilisation of entire countries

Dishonourable mentions: Timothy Bell, the Guptas,
James Henderson, Mzwanele Manyi, Andile Mngxitama

Once upon a time, Victoria Geoghegan was an ambitious upper-level executive on a straight-line trajectory to the top of the public-relations universe. Now she is the face of the dramatic implosion of one of the world’s most recognisable and influential PR companies, and an unholy symbol of the public’s almost complete mistrust in the industry she represents. Also, everyone in South Africa hates her.

The PR company that Geoghegan once worked for, and once existed, was Bell Pottinger, a UK-based operation with a reputation for embracing the seediest of well-paying clients, from Oscar Pistorius and Rolf Harris to the Pinochet Foundation and the wife of Bashar al-Assad. Its confidential client list was, one imagines, a stolen photocopy of the Devil’s Rolodex.

In 2016, Bell Pottinger took on one client too many, however: the Gupta brothers, friends of President Zuma of South Africa and his immediate family. The full extent of that relationship was being incrementally revealed in the South African and international press at the time, with undesirable results for the brothers and their businesses. They were being painted as criminals and corrupters who influenced the highest political decisions in the land, plundered the South African treasury and economy at will, and really belonged in jail. The court of public opinion was becoming increasingly hostile, equating Zuma and the Guptas with the new concept of state capture, and important banks and financial institutions were refusing to do business with them. The “Zuptas” needed a PR makeover – or, at least, something to distract their critics from their shameless appropriation of state resources.

Enter Bell Pottinger, apparently introduced to the Guptas by two men intimately involved in the global arms trade: Fana Hlongwane, notorious for his role in South Africa’s corrupt and wasteful Arms Deal, and Christopher Geoghegan, former COO of BAE Systems, which was one of the chief beneficiaries of said deal and also a Bell Pottinger client. Fast-forward through the relevant meetings and strategy discussions and a fee agreement of £100,000 per month plus expenses, and Geoghegan’s daughter Victoria found herself heading up the account of Oakbay Investments, the Guptas’ holding company. All very cosy to this point.

Having joined Bell Pottinger at age 21, Victoria Geoghegan apparently had no qualms about dealing with the odd ropey client – with her father happy to sell overpriced fighter trainers to the South African government, sleeping peacefully after a hard day’s unconscionable work presumably runs in the family. Rather, she took a fast route up the career ladder, and under her guidance Bell Pottinger orchestrated the dissemination of a new narrative for the South African public to consume: the hoodoo of “white monopoly capital”.

Essentially a childlike no-you-are! response to the criticisms of state capture, claims of white monopoly capital dumped the blame for South Africa’s increasingly dire economic situation into the laps of white-owned businesses that were supposedly still running the country and reaping the spoils of apartheid. The briefest moment of lucid thought on the matter would reveal what bunk this idea was, but the ambitious and apparently amoral Geoghegan knew, as any vaguely competent PR minion does, that it’s hearts, not minds, that matter in such campaigns. Led by an army of fake Twitter accounts – Twitterbots – the message went out: It’s all about race. This is a powerful method of distraction just about anywhere in the world these days, but in South Africa, a country defined by its history of racial division, this was as cynical and reprehensible a move as could be imagined. It was a campaign that would later be described by the UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), the largest PR association in Europe, as “by any reasonable standard of judgment likely to inflame racial discord”, “beyond the pale” and “the most serious breach of our code of conduct in the history of the organisation”.

In this instance, however, it was also a campaign that was quite easily identified. The Twitterbots gave themselves away with a predilection for transmitting Gupta propaganda at exactly the same time, geolocators that revealed they were created in India, and laughably unlikely spreadsheet-generated names such as Bongi Vorster, Dlamini Louw and Iminathi Junior. There was a sense of shamelessness to it all that might fly in South Africa, where the Zuptas were so used to doing what they want and getting away with it, but once the UK press picked up on the story, Geoghegan, her campaign and Bell Pottinger itself were doomed. Major clients departed almost overnight, and the (non-Twitterbot) social-media response was vehement and determined. Geoghegan had committed the fatal PR crime of becoming the story and, with flaming irony, social-media rage would ensure she was fired for her efforts.

In December 2016, at the age of just 33, Victoria Geoghegan had been appointed MD of Bell Pottinger’s financial and corporate division, reward for her work on the Gupta account. In July 2017, she was forced to resign, along with others who had worked with her. Two months later, Bell Pottinger was expelled from the PRCA for five years for inciting racial hatred, acting against the public interest and generally bringing the industry into disrepute. A week after that, the company went into administration.

It is worth pointing out that the destruction of Bell Pottinger was a rare instance in which mass social-media rage became a force for good. For those who might be tempted to overstate the case, however, let’s not forget how it all began in the first place. Geoghegan had harnessed the destructive powers of social media, and her weapon of choice eventually backfired and sunk her.

No-one who knows the story is likely to take her for a good, decent human being. Over the course of a year or so, she became the demon in the average South African’s ear, a disseminator of social poison who cared nought for the damage she was wreaking on an entire country – someone who proudly displayed her charitable credentials as a supporter of schoolchildren in Nigeria, while being intimately involved in undermining the future of schoolchildren in South Africa.

It must be acknowledged, though, that she was hardly acting in isolation, and two of the great modern PR sharks deserve special mention whenever her name crops up. They are Timothy Bell and
James Henderson.

As Margaret Thatcher’s top spin doctor and then the founder of Bell Pottinger itself, the late Baron Bell was essentially British PR aristocracy, which may sound rather fancy but should not, we’d suggest, be considered an aspirational status unless being a self-inflated arse of dubious morality correlates with your vision of greatness. For an immediate sense of the man, we recommend watching the award-winning 2020 documentary Influence, of which he is the unapologetically frank focal point. Bell was intimately involved in, and excited by, the early negotiations with his company’s new clients, the Guptas, but with the self-preservation instincts of a gutter weasel on garbage day, he soon spotted the impending disaster and skittered into disaffected and condescending exile in August 2016. When Tim Bell doesn’t want your business, you know you’re bad news.

Henderson, meanwhile, the CEO of Bell Pottinger with the oleaginous sheen of an otter in an oil slick, lacked such foresight. After pushing the how-should-I-know-what-my-employees-were-up-to? defence as far as it could go, he was forced to take a fall just days before the PRCA ruling in September 2017 – but his resignation proved futile. His fiancée Heather Kerzner, the socialite ex-wife of Sol Kerzner, had invested millions of pounds in Bell Pottinger only months before the Gupta scandal started playing out, and together the two owned 37% of the company, a share that quickly became worthless. A few days after Henderson’s resignation, the Henderson-Kerzner wedding was put on indefinite hold. There’s only so much schadenfreude to be extracted in the circumstances, but South African observers took what they could.

Bell, who died in 2019, and Henderson were industry heavyweights who had built up Bell Pottinger into an enormously effective multinational that employed hundreds of people and influenced millions in countries across the world, from Chile to Iraq. This was hardly a case in isolation, so it says rather a lot that what they allowed to happen in South Africa was so loathsome that it sunk their business.

Anyone with the vaguest understanding of human nature knows that deep in the heart of all people – less deep in some than in others – lie the calcified seams of our worst terrors and instincts: racism, bigotry, fear of the other. It’s taken thousands of years of civilisation to temper these embers of potential destruction with mutual respect and understanding, and codified laws, so that we might get along and build societies together, and in so doing lift up all within them.

South Africa, with its particular past, will always be prone to those looking to stoke the embers to their own advantage, and mostly the attempts are raw, instinctive and inherently political. Mzwanele “Jimmy” Manyi – putting it out there, as Director-General of Labour in 2010, that there were too many coloureds in the Western Cape. The white genocide crowd – always gunning for its own purified and independent homeland. The EFF – practically founded on this way of being. Andile Mngxitama of Black First Land First – a guy so toxic even the EFF expelled him, and yet so incoherent in his thinking that he was happy to work with “capital” Bell Pottinger and consider them “friends”.

But righteous, indignant and even understandable race-baiting, as destructive as it is, is somehow less repugnant than the weaponised, monetised programme of influence that Victoria Geoghegan put her name to on behalf of Bell Pottinger. She did her bit to tear apart a country without, it would appear, the merest scruple on her face, only the monthly retainer and her career trajectory in mind.

There are, sadly, rather a lot of Victoria Geoghegans in the PR industry, but she just happened to be the one who ignored every single moral fibre in her body. The one who seems to have done whatever her clients, the godawful Guptas, wanted done, even if it meant gilding the enormous turd they had dumped on South Africa and its people.

As of September 2020, Geoghegan and Henderson, along with a colleague named Nick Lambert, had been targeted for formal directorship disqualification by the Insolvency Service in the UK. The bare minimum, we’d say. Jail sentences would be more appropriate.

<extract from 50 People Who F***ed Up South Africa: The Lost Decade by Alexander Parker and Tim Richman, with cartoons by Zapiro, published by Mercury, available in all good bookstores and online, R285>

Title: 50 People Who F***ed Up South Africa

Subtitle: The Lost Decade

Authors: Alexander Parker and Tim Richman, with cartoons by Zapiro

ISBN: 9781990956096

Publisher: Mercury

Distributor: Jacana Media

Genre: SA non-fiction / Humour / SA Politics / Satire / Social Commentary

Format: Softcover / ebook

Recommended Retail Price: R 285

Release Date: November 2020

Availability: Available in all good bookstores, from Takealot and other online retailers, and as an ebook and paperback from Amazon.

For more information: Jodi Lynn Karpes, GreenQueen Communications

+27 (0)84 876 5431, jodi@greenqueen.co.za