“We want cadres who can plant food, but who are also excellent with propagating our ideas via twitter!”
– Andile Mngxitama, Political Report to the 1st BLF National Strategic Planning Meeting, December 2016
In March, Andile Mngxitama was alleged to be under the direction of the Zuma presidency via a London-based PR firm, Bell Pottinger. According to press reports, documents exist which confirm his connection to Zuma. Specific allegations have been made that Andile Mngxitama’s Black First, Land First (BLF) movement was either set up or funded via Bell Pottinger as a means of buoying the Zuma presidency.
In my mind, there are two questions: First, how likely is it that Bell Pottinger has, in fact, employed Andile Mngxitama to provide PR support for Zuma? From a simple logistical point of view, is it even possible?
Second, it is worth noting that one of the tenets of Pan-Africanism is the emphasis on clean governance (often referred to as the ‘Sankaran Principle’), something Zuma is hardly an angelic model for. Why, then, would a Pan-Africanist like Mngxitama make such a radical move to support an obviously corrupt presidency?
In other words, is it logistically feasible that Mngxitama was bought out by Zuma via Bell Pottinger, and what might his motives be for turning his back on fundamental Pan-African ideology?
A Timeline Analysis
Loyalty to Pan-African principles of clean government: From the time of the inception of the September National Imbizo (Mngxitama was a founder of the SNI) in 2010, right through to his involvement in the formation of the EFF, and even the later exit from the party in April 2015, Mngxitama has consistently argued that a corrupt government is unacceptable.
He has consistently argued that the Zuma-led government has run the country in a manner that corruptly benefits the white minority.
An open letter (May 2012) of the September National Imbizo committee is particularly telling: he argues that not only is the Zuma government “divorced” from the electorate, but that it has “failed dismally to alleviate the brutal conditions of the poor”. In another interview he argues the ANC has “shit processes”.
In July 2013, Mngxitama not only helps form the EFF, but also has a hand in writing the EFF’s key principles, one of which is the commitment to an “Open, accountable, corrupt-free government and society without fear of victimisation by State agencies.” All of these actions and positions are pretty much in line with standard Pan-African ideology. Mngxitama’s position is in no way unique or unusual. It is also worth bearing in mind that the EFF was founded on an explicitly anti-Zuma platform. It would be illogical of Mngxitama to help form a party that holds views he opposes.
By September 2016, however, he is singing a very different tune. The obvious non-Sankaran issue of Nkandla and other corruption problems are blatantly ignored by Mngxitama. He now starts to argue that Zuma, despite his historical role in setting up what Mngxitama considers a “puppet” government for the white elite, is somehow an economic saviour. He even goes on to bizarrely suggest that the problems in the country have nothing to do with the ruling ANC government.
What motivated this sudden change in ideology?
As a Member of Parliament for the EFF, Andile was earning about R80 000 a month salary, or just under a million rand a year. Evidently, he seems to have put this to good use. Newspaper reports suggest that by the time he was expelled from the EFF, he had bought at least six to seven properties. However, with the loss of income as an MP, it evidently caused him financial difficulties.
In November 2015, the first of Andile Mngxitama’s numerous properties is put under auction. By April 2016, in a desperate move to secure cash, he then invests in the MMM ponzi scheme. Evidently this doesn’t bring in the cash flow he sorely needs to keep up with payments to the bank. A month later, in May, Nedbank puts a further six of his properties under auction. Andile Mngxitama is clearly in dire straits financially.
However, barely a few months later, by September 2016, BLF is suddenly operating an obviously well-funded slick operation with an explicit pro-Zuma stance. The BLF has a very small membership, acknowledged by Mngxitama in the December 2016 Strategic Planning Meeting, so it is very unlikely that the income is coming from membership fees.
Where has the sudden injection of cash come from?
Bell Pottinger and Twitter Campaigns
According to reports, Zuma employed this service sometime in the beginning of 2016.
Now, there are a few things that we can take away from this claim. First, when considering this date it is impossible that BLF was originally set up by Bell Pottinger, as the BLF was formed in August 2015. However, the beginning of 2016 is only when the original approach was made by Zuma representatives. It would take time to put together a complete programme – possibly several months.
Conveniently for Bell Pottinger, this also coincided with Andile Mngxitama’s increasing financial woes. Bear in mind that he was desperate enough to invest into a ponzi scheme, thus the other possibility suggested by the report, that the BLF is funded, rather than was formed by Bell Pottinger, is more logical and realistic.
From September through to February, BLF is very active, picketing Thuli Madonsela’s office, demonstrating at a few ABSA branches, and a picket outside the Reserve Bank. All of which were very slickly run, and appeared well-funded. These actions are accompanied by extensive Twitter campaigns by BLF committee members. Again, this suggests not only a well-timed cash injection from Bell Pottinger, but also mentoring and guidance on manipulating social media.
It can’t be stressed how important social media is to BLF strategy. At the December 2016 Strategic Planning Meeting, Mngxitama even went so far as to demand during the opening speech that: “We want cadres who can plant food, but who are also excellent with propagating our ideas via twitter!” I have observed on Twitter that a number of fake accounts were set up that suddenly gained several thousand follows in a space of a couple of weeks. All the followers of these accounts were obviously bots (automated accounts that retweet to magnify the original tweet to help it trend) – all of whom mysteriously seemed to religiously retweet anything BLF/pro-Zuma related.
To return to the two questions:
- Is it feasible that London-based firm Bell Pottinger is directing and scripting the actions of Andile Mngxitama and the BLF? According to the timeline of events, it fits well, and explains the emergence of slick and well-funded campaigns by the BLF both online and in real life. Even Mngxitama’s strange decision to ignore Pan-African (Sankaran) principles of clean government, tie in perfectly with the sequence of events.
- What motive would Mngxitama have for turning his back on Pan-African ideology? Again, the timeline of events is useful – Mngxitama was in all likelihood approached by Bell Pottinger between June and early August, just as his financial woes had come to a peak. His financial decisions suggest he was desperate for cash. News reports don’t provide a figure as to how much Mngxitama was offered, but it seems enough, to not only revive his political career, but to turn his back on Pan-African ideals.
(I’d like to thank one of the Rational Standard’s readers for alerting me to Mngxitama’s property woes.)
A Timeline of Key Events
Jacob Zuma assumes the presidency of the ANC.
Jacob Zuma assumes office as President.
The September National Imbizo meets and sets out the state of Pan-African politics. They are dismayed by the state of South Africa and argue that the now Zuma-led government is running the government in the interests of the white minority.
The September National Imbizo writes an open letter to Zuma and Helen Zille. In it, they accuse the DA opposition and the Zuma government of having “failed dismally to alleviate the brutal conditions of the poor”. They further argue that elected representatives are “divorced” from the electorate.
Events at Waterkloof Air Force Base give rise to the infamous Guptagate furore.
The EFF is formed. Andile Mngxitama, along with other members of the September Black Imbizo, joins the EFF and has a hand in the writing of the so-called seven principles. The seventh and last principle being: “Open, accountable, corrupt-free government and society without fear of victimisation by State agencies.”
Thuli Madonsela finalises the Nkandla report. The country holds its breath.
Andile Mngxitama has very public clashes with EFF leadership, necessitating the involvement of police. He is quickly suspended. Mngxitama is accused of sowing division and ill-discipline.
Andile Mngxitama, along with two others, is expelled from the EFF. At the time, Khanyisile Litchfield-Tshabalala alleges that the EFF has plans afoot to have Mngxitama stabbed to death in Cape Town.
In an ad hoc committee, MPs clash over findings of Thuli Madonsela’s Nkandla report. Opposition MPs accuse the committee of trying to impose arguments so illogical, they are like “witchcraft”.
BLF has its First National Convention and unveils its new logo. In addition, a set of principles and purpose is set out. Included in this a commitment to Sankaran leadership principles, essentially the commitment to a clean government that spends government resources on the people, rather than to the exclusive benefit of a governing elite.
The first of Andile Mngxitama’s numerous properties is put under auction as he fails to make bond payments.
ZumaMustFall campaign is in full swing.
Beginning of 2016:
It is at some time around this point that the Sunday Times alleges that Zuma employs the services of PR firm Bell Pottinger, and later Andile Mngxitama’s BLF.
The ANC executive committee meets over concerns of state capture. It is evident that the public and many within ANC leadership are now publicly concerned about Zuma and his presidency.
Andile Mngxitama’s financial woes continue and he appears to take desperate measures to secure finances by investing in the MMM ponzi scheme.
Six of Andile Mngxitama’s properties are put under the hammer by Nedbank as he is unable to keep up with bond payments. The MMM ponzi scheme hasn’t appeared to work out for him.
BLF’s pro-Zuma campaign kicks off in earnest. Mngxitama does an about-turn on the Zuma presidency and the ANC, arguing that “under his leadership that the distant dream of economic liberation could become a reality.” He also now argues that the problems of the country are not to do with the government in power, but rather a “white agenda”.
BLF pickets Thuli Madonsela’s office to demand investigation of various banks.
BLF holds its Strategic Planning Meeting. This meeting sets out key strategies for the BLF to contest the 2019 general elections. Again, the thrust is very much pro-Zuma. In addition, a call is made to strengthen the movement’s social media presence.
BLF manages to have a small number of protests at a handful of ABSA branches, despite the call for national picketing. It is accompanied by a voracious Twitter campaign by BLF members, with many repeated tweets designed to get the protest to trend. ANCYL KZN members picket ABSA’s regional headquarters in Durban the day before.
BLF organise a protest at the South African Reserve Bank.
Reports surface that Andile Mngxitama and BLF are being employed by PR firm Bell Pottinger. By the end of March, Zuma is in the process of firing Gordhan. The ZumaMustFall campaign re-emerges.