Paid-for racism: SA democracy shows its teeth

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Sabotaging South Africa’s non-racial dream: Atul Gupta, a member of the family accused of looting state coffers and controlling President Zuma’s government for their own enrichment, has been helped by London PR firm Bell Pottinger to stoke racial tensions in the country

WHILE it seems incredible that in a racially charged society like ours someone would purposely stoke black-white tensions, for enough money some people will do anything. The London-based public relations firm Bell Pottinger (BP) has done that for a fee of about $170,000 a month: it fashioned racially divisive slogans, speeches and activities for the mafia network of President Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family, to divert South Africans’ attention so they could continue looting state coffers behind the smokescreen.

This perilous ethnic baiting is familiar to Jewish ears. For centuries, when they were on good terms with their gentile neighbours, they suddenly heard someone say: “Jews are vermin and Christ-killers.” The Holocaust is the most blatant example of the violence that followed, but there are others. It also happened in Rwanda in 1994 when Tutsis were called “cockroaches” as part of a campaign of delegitimisation, and some 800 000 were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbours.

It boggles the mind that so soon after Mandela’s rainbow-nation dream seemed within reach – South Africa’s black-white relations have improved, despite huge problems – someone should purposely undermine it by dredging up racist hatred from colonialism and apartheid.

Hired by the Gupta family in 2016, BP has advised them and their associates about how to protect their image. Attacks on their pervasive corruption were blamed on “white monopoly capital” and other populist slogans which resonated with the angry masses. White journalists who criticised them were called racists and threatened by groups such as Black First Land First, reportedly funded by the Guptas and tutored by BP.

In the past, BP has helped shine the images of dictators such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile and oppressive regimes in Belarus, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Then it saw an opportunity in South Africa and grabbed it.

It may seem inappropriate in this gloomy atmosphere to drink a toast to ourselves. But we should. Because although the war to rescue the country from the Guptas and Zumas and their henchmen has not yet been fully won, there have been significant partial victories.

After being exposed, BP has crawled on its knees and publically apologised, admitting to unethical tactics and expressing “profound regret.” Its apology is clearly insufficient and reflects only the tip of the iceberg. The saga should be used to expose other saboteurs of South Africa’s vision and force them to make amends.

When foreigners come visiting, their local hosts tell them things look bleak. A corrupt president clings to power, a foreign family pulls government strings, the economy is plunging, violence is rising, whites feel like a threatened minority, and so on. The old question, “should I stay or go?” hangs in the air. Many have left the country; more would leave if they had the resources.

Yet if the foreign visitor was Canadian and had read last Friday’s Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto, he might have a more positive view. The paper described the “humbling” by the country of Bell Pottinger which had “met its match in the free-wheeling democracy of South Africa” with its “vibrant media and civil-society sector.”

The positive angle has lots of truth in it. Widespread public outrage and action in civil society and some parts of government are rising sharply as more evidence of the Zuma-Gupta contagion emerges. And although the scary spectre of the country sliding towards a Zimbabwe-style kleptocracy has seemed less outlandish recently than it once did, South Africans are not passive Zimbabweans and will not let it happen.

Hopefully, one day visitors from abroad will toast the success of this wonderful country with South Africans and celebrate the vanquishing of criminals such as the Zumas and Guptas and their enablers, BP.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

J’Accuse! – No-one can say we did not know

 

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Is it safe to be a journalist in SA today? A Black First Land First member confronts journalist Peter Bruce outside his Johannesburg home last week for his stories criticising corruption and the Gupta family

A FAMOUS example of a journalist bravely speaking truth to power, regardless of personal consequences, comes from Jewish history in 1898, when French writer Emile Zola (a non-Jew), published a front page open letter in the paper L’Aurore to the French President headlined “J’Accuse…!” (In English: “I accuse…! Letter to the President of the Republic”). It was about the notorious Dreyfus affair, and became a benchmark for journalistic daring towards people in high office.

A Jewish officer in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus was accused of selling military secrets to the Germans, convicted of treason and jailed, though there was no direct evidence. Zola risked his career by accusing the army of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism. He wanted a libel case to be opened against him so evidence disproving Dreyfus’ guilt would be made public. The case divided France bitterly between the army and Catholic Church, and liberal society.

Zola was tried and convicted for criminal libel. He fled to England, saying: “The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it.” In 1906, the Supreme Court exonerated Dreyfus. Zola’s 1898 article marked a significant journalistic victory.

In South Africa today, the thousands of leaked Gupta-family emails incriminating public officials in self-enriching sleaze are a foundation for the “J’Accuse” of this country. It comes amidst growing intimidation of journalists.

Last week Suna Venter (32), an SABC journalist fired for resisting censorship at the public broadcaster died. She had been harassed, shot with a pellet gun, threatened by phone and assaulted. Her car’s tyres were slashed and brake cables cut, and her flat broken into. She was diagnosed with “Broken Heart Syndrome”, a cardiac condition from stress which weakens heart muscles.

And also last week, the group Black First Land First (BLF) – a mob of black fascists parading as ‘activists’ with reported links to the Gupta family – harassed respected journalist Peter Bruce outside his home, and published a list of white journalists they would target, including the country’s finest: Peter Bruce, Sam Sole, Adriaan Basson, Stephen Grootes, Max du Preez, Barry Bateman and Alec Hogg. All were critical of the Zuma government and links to the Guptas. BLF also said “black” journalists such as Ferial Haffajee, Karima Brown and Eusebius McKaiser who mimic these “white agents of white monopoly capital… must repent, ask for forgiveness from black people for being used by white monopoly capital.”

South Africa has a short tradition of democracy. Its young plant of freedom could still be uprooted. One does not need a long memory to recall apartheid, when journalists took extreme personal risks to write truthfully about the goings-on. One well-known example was Ruth First – wife of underground activist Joe Slovo – who was murdered in exile by apartheid forces in 1982 by means of a parcel bomb.

Fortunately, the freedom struggle is sufficiently recent so many who fought it are still around. They will not go quietly into the night. And younger journalists are coming up unafraid to tell the truth, at personal risk.

ANC bigwigs say “irresponsible” journalists badmouth people in authority unjustly. In Jewish terminology, they accuse the media of lashon hara – malicious gossip-mongering. A Yiddish parable likens gossip to taking a feather mattress up a mountain and cutting it open: the feathers, like loose talk, fly in the wind and cannot be pulled back. This is doubly apt in the Twitter age.

In our current political context the concept must be inverted. The feathers from the leaked Gupta emails being released are grains of truth. Bluster and arrogance from the ANC cannot pull them back. In South Africa today, we can no longer say we did not know about the corruption and lies. The question is: what will we do about it?

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )