"Smarmy bastards," I remember thinking when the boys from Bell Pottinger wafted into a newsroom I was working in to bring former Oakbay chief executive Nazeem Howa for an interview.
Associate partner David Bass and partner Nick Lambert had the look of experienced public relations (PR) practitioners from London, the heartbeat of spin. They were suited, smooth and dressed in the manipulation that comes naturally to them. With business cards at the ready and shoes shone almost as much as their slicked-down hair, they were doing what Bell Pottinger does.
They were putting lipstick on pigs and convincing journalists (and by extension, the public) it was a supermodel. Bell Pottinger is a multinational and, unlike the better ones where localisation is an imperative, the company's model is neocolonial.
As the company's PR campaign for the Gupta family and its main investment vehicle, Oakbay, unfolded, the neocolonial quality of Bell Pottinger's work became clear. The executives, led by Victoria Geoghegan, cultivated relationships largely with white Anglo-Saxon editors in Johannesburg as they sought to soothe the suppurating coverage their dodgy clients were attracting almost everywhere.
Those journalists engaged in uncovering the model of state capture the Gupta family was engaged with were targeted and attacked by the dark ops part of the campaign, which spewed out the white monopoly capital campaign that rode on the coat-tails of legitimate demands for social justice, but served only to provide cover for their clients' looting.
I have no idea if Bass and Lambert were part of the black ops, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were. What's left of Bell Pottinger is trying desperately to suggest that what happened in South Africa was an aberration: the record shows this is a lie. The company's founder, Sir Tim Bell, was a brilliant strategist who succeeded in portraying the British Labour Party as a self-interested anachronism in a campaign that propelled Maggie Thatcher into 10 Downing Street.
But Bell Pottinger has lost its way: it became a practitioner of dark arts and it manufactured propaganda, usually across the Third World. It traded on its ability to buy influence and to put words in the mouths of politicians as it did here when it wrote speeches for the ANC Youth League and for the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans' Association as the #Guptaleaks have shown.
Bell Pottinger's clients manipulated the digital world, recreating Wikipedia profiles for their clients. They did it for the Guptas too. And while an investigation into their work by the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills LLP has found they did not run Twitter bots that created the campaign of misinformation, they were clearly the strategists for the mayhem that unfolded.
Bell Pottinger strode the globe like a colossus making a mint from manipulation. It works in countries where accountability is not great and so it grew a shield of impunity. That was until it got to South Africa where a robust media and a cottage industry of internet sleuths quickly uncovered their campaign.
The excellent journalists who have found the stories in the #Guptaleaks emails put the brakes on Bell Pottinger's work here. This is, after all, a country engaged in a fundamental joust with neocolonialism. And it is the country where the boys and girls from Bell Pottinger met their match.