South Africa inquiry to probe Bell Pottinger

Bell Pottinger's actions in South Africa will be examined as part of a public inquiry in the country into alleged state corruption.

Members of South Africa's Democratic Alliance outside Bell Pottinger's former London HQ last August
Members of South Africa's Democratic Alliance outside Bell Pottinger's former London HQ last August

The inquiry, launched this week, is looking at so-called "state capture", focusing on the actions of the Gupta family and their links to former president Jacob Zuma.

Bell Pottinger collapsed last year following the scandal over its work with Oakbay Investments, a Gupta family conglomerate in South Africa.

The London-based PR agency was accused of stoking racial hatred, with allegations that Oakbay paid Bell Pottinger to highlight ‘economic apartheid’. The agency was placed in administration in September shortly after being thrown out of the PRCA.

According to an opening address by the legal team for the inquiry, the inquiry's commission will be asked to "examine… whether there were attempts to take control of the public narrative and discourse and, if so, whether this was a manifestation of state capture in South Africa".

It will look at the role of Bell Pottinger and that of New Age, the newspaper owned by the Guptas; including whether that newspaper was supported by the state, and if so, why.

PRWeek asked the inquiry whether former Bell Pottinger figures are likely to be asked to give evidence, either in person or through other means, but received no response at the time of publication.

Expelling Bell Pottinger last September, the PRCA's professional practices committee (PPC) concluded that the agency had breached both its professional charter and its public affairs and lobbying code of conduct, in its work for Oakbay.

It was concluded by the PPC that the agency had run a campaign that "was by any reasonable standard of judgement likely to inflame racial discord in South Africa", had itself admitted that aspects of its work "should never have been undertaken" and that it had in turn caused "damage to the reputations of both Bell Pottinger and the profession of public affairs and lobbying".

PRCA director general Francis Ingham said: "The repercussions of Bell Pottinger’s actions and its demise following our firm response continue. Within our industry, this week saw the launch of he Global Alliance ethical framework, building on the ICCO Helsinki Declaration: a positive change. In South Africa, we now see this positive development, too.

"We were very clear that Bell Pottinger’s work in South Africa was against our Code of Conduct, and that such work had inflicted significant harm on the country.

"We will, of course, cooperate in this inquiry, and we wish it well. What remains clear for our industry is this: it has significant power; that power must be used for good; malpractice is very much the exception, but where it does occur, we will call it out."

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