Influence, the much-anticipated South African documentary about notoriously amoral PR firm Bell Pottinger, opens locally this week.
Apart from detailing how the company crafted the ‘white monopoly capital’ campaign for the Guptas, it offers incendiary revelations about South Africa’s 1994 election and how former president FW de Klerk and the National Party crafted the Constitution to the benefit of the minority.
South African film makers Richard Poplak and Diana Neille’s Influence opens in South Africa on Wednesday as part of the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival. Packed with startling and often shocking details, it profiles “morally slippery” British reputation manager Lord Timothy Bell as he recounts work done by his infamous public relations firm Bell Pottinger, including a campaign run for the Gupta family in 2016.
It’s a documentary about weaponised communication and the ever-increasing role of spin-doctoring in democracies – and it’s more relevant now than ever.
We asked Poplak and Neille about Bell’s dodgy dealings with the National Party in 1994.
What exactly did Bell do in the 1994 election?
DN: Tim Bell’s work in 1994 was ensuring that the National Party was in a position in the new government structure to essentially manipulate the Constitution-making process.
While making the film, we realised that, in many ways, that election and the work being done by Bell himself in South Africa in the early 1990s set the template for what was to come.
Bell Pottinger was only established in 1997, three years after the election. The company had done work in perhaps 60% to 70% of African countries and had always used the same kind of model – where it gets cosy with the incoming party by helping them win the election and then reaps the benefits, along with its wealthy clients, off the back of that.
The 1994 campaign happened a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and democracy was this new, bright, shiny project globally, particularly in Africa. PR firms like Bell Pottinger were experimenting with a business model for how to connect politicians, businesspeople, wealthy clients, oligarchs and arms dealers to offer services for communications around elections.
That work then spun off into the whitewashing industry and into taking kickbacks from the businesspeople who were hooked up with lucrative contracts.
And FW de Klerk?
DN: Guys like De Klerk have benefited from that. They’ve set up ‘discreet foundations’ to aid developing world leaders in how to govern. But you realise what those relationships translate into when you dig a little deeper.
It was very interesting from that perspective to see just how deeply and widely these networks extend – that was certainly a big eye-opener.
De Klerk hasn’t enjoyed much popularity in South Africa of late. Do you think the revelations in this documentary will be incendiary once South Africans see them?
RP: We can’t predict how the film will be absorbed, especially when it hits TV, but there are a couple of important things to consider. The first is that not enough connection has been made between the machinery of the election and the creation of the Constitution.
In other words, the power vested in the minority in terms of being able to dictate how the Constitution-making process unfolded essentially allowed the National Party to veto what the new South Africa would look like. Preventing the ANC from getting the majority vote in the 1994 elections effectively allowed some wiley characters to shape the future of this country, which they did successfully. Add to this the fact that the majority of constitutions around the world are written by the outgoing authoritarian regimes, and you start to understand something important about democracy.
The second thing the film reveals is that the historical work on the 1994 election has been weak – and we have multiple sources telling us that it wasn’t a straight election. During the filmmaking process, we constantly had people urging us to water down the statements made in the film and we were cajoled into doing so. But we have seven, eight, nine or 10 sources saying this is how it was – the election was manipulated.
DN: If not outright fixed. The outcome was decided on by the various parties involved.
RP: The important thing is that we need to start having some real conversations about 1994. There were many brilliant and committed South Africans who were involved in that election process, but they were privy to only a small slice of it. The Tim Bell factor allows us to understand the wider cues which that election propagated. I think it’s really important for the film to nudge us in that direction.