August 24, 2017 / 4:44 PM / in a year

South African party says its complaint against UK PR firm is upheld

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa’s main opposition party said on Thursday its complaint that public relations firm Bell Pottinger had “exploited racial tensions” in a campaign on behalf of the country’s ruling ANC had been upheld.

Phumzile Van Damme, spokeswoman for the Democratic Alliance (DA), said Britain’s Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) had told it Bell Pottinger had been found to have violated the association’s professional charter.

“Bell Pottinger will now be given five days to appeal the PRCA’s decision if it so chooses,” she said.

The DA had accused Bell Pottinger of working to “divide and conquer the South African public by exploiting racial tensions in a bid to keep Jacob Zuma and the ANC in power”.

The PR firm had organized a campaign in South Africa condemning opponents of President Zuma and leftist elements of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) as agents of “white monopoly capital”.

Such slogans gained traction in a country where the white minority still wields disproportionate economic power, two decades after the end of apartheid.

A source familiar with the matter in London confirmed that the DA’s complaint had been upheld by the PRCA. Bell Pottinger was not available to comment.

The basis of the DA’s allegations were leaked emails that implied that Bell Pottinger worked with South African President Jacob Zuma’s son, Duduzane, to create a “narrative that grabs the attention of the grassroots population”.

Duduzane Zuma was working at the time for a company controlled by the Guptas, a family of wealthy Indian-born businessmen accused of exerting undue influence over the president. They and Zuma have denied any wrongdoing.

Bell Pottinger’s campaign themes were aired frequently on a Gupta-owned television station and on social media. The firm was paid for its services by Oakbay, the holding company of the Guptas’ mining-to-media empire, but ended the contract in April after widespread criticism.

On July 6, Bell Pottinger said it had fired a partner in charge of its PR campaign in South Africa. It said the firm was “deeply sorry that this happened” and that elements of the campaign had been “inappropriate and insensitive” in a country with a troubled racial past.

The PRCA has said it will publish its final decision on the week beginning September 4.

The maximum penalty for breaching the industry body’s code could be termination of Bell Pottinger’s membership of the PRCA.

Its Code of Conduct states that members should “take all reasonable care that professional duties are conducted without causing offense on the grounds of gender, race, religion, disability or any other form of discrimination”.

Reporting by James Macharia in Johannesburg and Emma Rumney in London; editing by Andrew Roche

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