UK PR firm probed over South African 'economic apartheid' campaign

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A London-based public relations body has opened an investigation into one of its members, Bell Pottinger, amid allegations the company lies behind a PR campaign that could stoke racial tensions in South Africa.

Bell Pottinger chief executive James Henderson said he had commissioned an outside law firm to look into the controversy surrounding the firm’s work in South Africa. The company has previously described itself as the victim of political smears.

“I’m obviously deeply concerned by this issue, which is why I’m trying to get to the bottom of it,” he told Reuters.

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) filed a complaint with the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) after leaked emails suggested links between President Jacob Zuma’s son, Duduzane, and the creation of a Bell Pottinger “narrative that grabs the attention of the grassroots population”.

Duduzane was working at the time for a company controlled by the Guptas, a family of wealthy Indian-born businessman widely accused of exerting undue influence over the president, including on the hiring and firing of cabinet ministers.

They and Zuma have denied any wrongdoing.

The Bell Pottinger campaign needed to stress the continued “existence of economic apartheid” and “should be along the lines of #EconomicEmancipation or whatever it is”, according to one email reported in domestic media.

The communications preceded a sustained campaign in South Africa condemning enemies of President Zuma and leftist elements of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) as agents of “white monopoly capital”.

The slogan, aired frequently on a Gupta-owned television station, quickly gained traction in a country where the white minority still wields disproportionate economic power two decades after the end of apartheid.

However, there are fears it is spiraling out of control, with a protest last week by a group called Black First Land First outside the Johannesburg home of Peter Bruce, a white newspaper columnist.

In its complaint, the DA, the political home of many white South Africans, accused Bell Pottinger of working with Duduzane 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 PRCA said it had opened a “formal process” to investigate the complaint.

Its Code of Conduct states that its 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”.

“White monopoly capital” featured prominently at a major ANC policy conference this week as a rallying cry for supporters of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Zuma’s ex-wife and a candidate to succeed him as party leader at the end of the year.

Bell Pottinger dropped Oakbay, the holding company of the Guptas’ mining-to-media empire, in April, alleging that it was the target of a “politically driven smear campaign” after domestic media criticism of its role.

Bell Pottinger said last week it had launched an independent audit of its time working for Oakbay. Duduzane Zuma is director of an Oakbay subsidiary.

Reporting by Ed Cropley; editing by Ralph Boulton