Demonstrators protesting against the South African president and calling for his resignation hold placards and shout slogans outside the Gupta Family compound in Johannesburg on April 7, 2017. Tens of thousands of protesters marched through South African cities demanding President Jacob Zuma's resignation, as a second ratings agency downgraded the country's debt to junk status. Zuma's sacking of respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan last week has fanned public anger, divisions within the ruling ANC party and a sharp decline in investor confidence in the country. Zuma has also been accused of being in the sway of the wealthy Gupta business family, allegedly granting them influence over government appointments, contracts and state-owned businesses. / AFP PHOTO / GULSHAN KHAN (Photo credit should read GULSHAN KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators protesting against the South African president outside the Gupta Family compound in Johannesburg in April © AFP

Bell Pottinger, the UK-based financial public relations adviser, has hired lawyers to audit work it did for a company owned by South Africa’s controversial Gupta business family, amid a growing storm over its role in the country.

The independent audit will review all aspects of Bell Pottinger’s year-long relationship with Oakbay, a holding company of the Gupta’s mining-to-media empire. Bell Pottinger ended the tie-up in April, while under heavy fire for allegedly exacerbating racial tensions with a messaging campaign.

Bell Pottinger represented Oakbay as the Guptas were accused of using a friendship with President Jacob Zuma to influence public contracts and ministerial appointments in order to aid their businesses. Both the family and Mr Zuma have denied the allegations of corruption, which have split the ruling African National Congress.

South African media and civil society groups have accused Bell Pottinger of presenting opponents of the Guptas and Mr Zuma as “white monopoly capital”. There have been complaints of fake social-media profiles amplifying attacks.

The firm has denied doing anything wrong, and said at the time of terminating its contract with Oakbay that it was “the target of a politically driven smear campaign.”

The audit will be seen as an attempt to limit the damage to Bell Pottinger’s reputation from the Oakbay contract. Two major clients with South African links — Richemont and Investec — ended ties with the firm after it took on the Oakbay contract.

This month, an opposition Democratic Alliance political press release criticised the country’s tourism board for working with Bell Pottinger “at the same time as the Guptas were paying them to sow division in South Africa”. The contract was recently terminated, though the tourism board denied it was for political reasons.

Pressure has increased since emails leaked in the South African press in recent weeks. They purportedly showed a number of Bell Pottinger partners preparing a campaign to highlight “economic apartheid” in the country, in response to criticism of Oakbay, as well as offering to edit speeches on behalf of ANC organisations that were allegedly doing the bidding of the Guptas.

Bell Pottinger has denied any such wrongdoing and said its work for Oakbay had been misrepresented.

The PR firm has since faced daily criticism from South Africans on social media under the #bellpottingermustfall hashtag, leading the firm to lock its Twitter account.

The name of the law firm, which is due to complete the audit within the next few weeks, was not disclosed, amid fears it would also attract social-media attacks, a person familiar with the matter said.

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