JOHANNESBURG — Bell Pottinger has ended its controversial relationship with South Africa's Gupta family, following a sustained backlash in the country against the notion that its work helped influence and support President Jacob Zuma's government policy.

Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson told the Holmes Report that the firm had stopped working with Oakbay Investments, the Gupta-owned conglomerate that has become a target of fierce criticism in the country. The decision, said Henderson, "ends our relationship completely [with the Guptas]".

The move is an unsurprising one, given the outcry against Bell Pottinger in South Africa, which increased this month when President Zuma fired Pravin Gordhan as finance minister in a dramatic reshuffle, precipitating a major political crisis. 

Companies controlled by members of the Gupta family have been deserted by their South African banks, brokers and auditors since last year, when the nation’s graft ombudsman implied that the president allowed the family to influence cabinet appointments and the issuing of state contracts. Zuma and the Guptas deny the allegations.

Bell Pottinger has been targeted at nationwide protests and on social media, while an unverified report claims that the firm sought to portray opponents of the Guptas as agents of ‘white monopoly capital’.

In a statement, Henderson refuted the report, which was released by the South Africa Communist Party. Henderson also denied that Bell Pottinger had used an affiliate agency in South Africa to support its work for the Guptas.

"The report was anonymous, gave no sources for its allegations and contained many statements about this firm and our work for Oakbay that were wholly untrue," said Henderson. "Since then a concerted social media campaign has been waged against this firm and certain of its partners and staff, with personally abusive and threatening comments on social media platforms. Bell Pottinger has been happy to deny on the record all the allegations made against it, the firm and its partners and staff hold themselves to the highest professional standards. To suggest that we would stoke racial tension in South Africa is both insulting and wrong."

"For the last year we have been working to help Oakbay defend itself from attacks on its reputation, correcting misrepresentations and defending it and its owners from politically motivated attack," continued Henderson. "In recent times the tactics of Oakbay’s detractors have changed; Bell Pottinger has been targeted and become the story. The unfounded and unsourced report referred to above is the latest example of the campaign against us. Unfortunately, in this regard, they have had some success and we have to accept that this has compromised our ability to be an effective advocate for our client."

Accordingly, said Henderson, the firm has stepped down from its role as Oakbay's communications advisor with immediate effect. "In all our work for Oakbay we have seen no evidence of wrongdoing," he added.

Bell Pottinger's work for Oakbay first hit the headlines last year, when it was hired to manage the fallout from allegations of 'state capture' against the Guptas, who are closely linked to President Zuma.

Since then, two high-profile Bell Pottinger clients — Richemont and Investec — have cut ties with the firm. Richemont head Johann Rupert claimed that Bell Pottinger was behind a social media campaign that targeted him as an opponent of President Zuma.

Bell Pottinger executive Victoria Geoghegan denied the allegations last year, but criticism of the firm has continued unabated in South Africa. A protest by expatriate South Africans is planned to take place at Bell Pottinger's London office on Saturday.

[Photo credit: Discott]