Picture: MARTIN RHODES/ISTOCK
Picture: MARTIN RHODES/ISTOCK

Obviously, I was delighted to hear last week about Bell Pottinger’s decision to drop the Guptas, but I was even more delighted to read their melancholic, whimpering statement; if you closed your eyes, it sounded like a bunch of Tim Henman fans dragging their bottom lips out of Wimbledon after yet another quarter-final castration of deluded expectations.

But this is the thing about reputation managers: they are extremely disappointing. In 2013, I remember watching a series of embarrassing events unfold as the country scrambled to fathom what Oscar Pistorius had just done. There, it was a local bunch of reputation managers who were making the events embarrassing, with pathetic, unconvincing statements issued about Oscar’s remorse.

I wondered for a long time exactly what Bell Pottinger was doing for the Guptas, then I wondered even more when I read correspondence Peter Bruce received from Bell Pottinger’s local Tokyo Rose on the job, one Victoria Geoghegan: "Our role," she declared, "has been to correct misconceptions where they exist and communicate Oakbay’s belief that a competitive, disruptive, job-creating philosophy is what SA needs if transformation is to be achieved."

Really? What do either the Guptas or Bell Pottinger know about economic transformation? Where were the full-page adverts in competition newspapers "correcting misconceptions?" Maybe reports broadcasting Oakbay’s grants to free tertiary education in the name of "transformation"? No? At least when Halliburton lobbied for and successfully procured the Iraq war, it made television commercials with Falcon Crest theme music showing smiling soldiers on aircraft carriers being fed. I’m not sure that happened.

But I am sure the following happened: in March 2016, the month the Guptas announced they had retained the services of Bell Pottinger, the former finance minister — a man of unimpeachable dignity with impeccable struggle credentials — was subjected to waves of unprecedented personal attacks.

Then, from nowhere, energumens representing obscure "forums" and "movements" obsessed over something called "White Minority Capital". They, too, venomously attacked Pravin Gordhan. Then both ANN7 and The New Age began hosting breakfasts where village jesters addressed race relations in the manner of Westboro Baptist Church shamans. Suddenly, statements on the same subjects emerged with hitherto unknown cohesion from the ANC Women’s League, the ANC Youth League and extensions of both.

I’m not sure that any misconceptions have been corrected, but I’m pretty sure some have been created — the most obvious being the malicious attacks on the Rupert family and the trashing of the legacy of the late Dr Anton Rupert, arguably SA’s greatest entrepreneur, reduced on social media and user forums to a smash-and-grabber without a single fact presented. I’m almost 100% certain this was an attempt to rewrite the country’s business narrative from exceptionalism to the controversial merits of a group of people who weren’t born here and who are neither innovative nor disruptive.

And I’m sure that somewhere lurking at the bottom of this blighted swamp of a campaign lies a rusting link to the arms deal, however fortuitous, where so few made so much so quickly, thrusting a young democracy into the perpetual shame of "political solutions" with consequences directly responsible for the tragedy of today’s ANC — no better characterised than by increasingly vocal counter-evolutionaries such as Faith Muthambi being rewarded for failure.

The years have stripped the details of Rupert’s biography by Ebbe Dommisse, published in 2006. What still appears, and reappears, are the themes of survival and calculated risk. When people who sell photocopiers and office automation read nonsense like The Wolf of Wall Street, they go mad, and start fantasising about speedboats; Rupert’s biography didn’t inspire the pursuit of wealth, but rather to listen, keep trying, read more, be kinder and more aware.

On its own, it was a remarkable correction of misconceptions and is probably needed now more than ever.

There is a lot of work available for reputation managers at the moment. Those charming folk making sarin gas in Syria jump to mind. Kim Jong-un appears a little poorly too. But after its time in SA, Bell Pottinger may do well to heed a quote from war correspondent Aidan Hartley’s memoir, The Zanzibar Chest. "Bugger other people’s wars," it goes, "its now time to fight your own."

• Reader works for an energy investment and political advisory firm

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