PR firm Bell Pottinger issues apology over ‘offensive’ campaign in South Africa

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U.K. PR firm Bell Pottinger has apologized after a social media campaign in South Africa provoked anger and accusations of inflaming racial tensions.

"There has been a social media campaign that highlights the issue of economic emancipation in a way that we, having now seen it, consider to be inappropriate and offensive," the firm's chief executive, James Henderson, said in a statement on Thursday.

According to Reuters, the Democratic Alliance, the political home of many white South Africans, accused Bell Pottinger of working to "divide and conquer the South African public by exploiting racial tensions in a bid to keep Jacob Zuma and the ANC in power."

The basis of its allegations were leaked emails that suggested Bell Pottinger worked with Duduzane Zuma, President Jacob Zuma's son, to create a "narrative that grabs the attention of the grassroots population."

Duduzane was working at the time for a company controlled by the Guptas, a family of wealthy Indian-born businessmen widely accused of exerting undue influence over the president, including the hiring and firing of cabinet ministers. They and Zuma have denied any wrongdoing.

According to an email published in South African media, Bell Pottinger said the campaign needed to stress the continued "existence of economic apartheid".

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Henderson said that at various points throughout the tenure of Bell Pottinger's account with Oakbay Capital, the company it was carrying out work for, senior management had been "misled about what has been done. For it to be done in South Africa, a country which has become an international beacon of hope for its progress towards racial reconciliation, is a matter of profound regret and in no way reflects the values of Bell Pottinger."

Henderson added that a partner had been dismissed and another partner, as well as two employees, had been suspended following an inquiry, which is still ongoing.

"At Bell Pottinger – a proudly diverse and international team – we have good, decent people who will be as angered by what has been discovered as we are," he continued.

"We wish to issue a full, unequivocal and absolute apology to anyone impacted. These activities should never have been undertaken. We are deeply sorry that this happened."

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