There's a war of words being waged through the South African news media; a war of buzzwords.

One of those terms is "state capture", which describes something South Africans say happens all too often - when businesses close to the ANC government of President Jacob Zuma exercise undue political influence and benefit unfairly from government tenders - ending up with taxpayers' money in their pockets.

At the heart of the accusations is a powerful business family, the Guptas, who have close ties with the Zuma family and whose business empire spans computer equipment, mining and media.

The Guptas have been fighting back against accusations of state capture with a public-relations offensive and a buzzword of their own. A trove of leaked emails originating from the Guptas and their associates have revealed that, with the help of Bell Pottinger, a public-relations firm based in London, the Guptas were behind the term - "white monopoly capital" - the idea that white-owned businesses control the South African economy.

We started seeing that the same individuals that were linked to the Guptas ... would be the same individuals to come out and defend the Guptas.

Thanduxolo Jika, investigative journalist, Sunday Times.

White monopoly capital is not fiction, as the country's economy is still skewed in favour of the white population. What the Gupta leaks reveal, however, is the way in which the phrase was planted in the media and amplified on social media as a distraction tactic, a counter-narrative to that of state capture.

When confronted on that, the Guptas produced another counter-narrative and they did not need a PR firm to help them with this one, calling the whole saga "fake news".

"South Africa's economy is very unfairly held," explains Ferial Haffajee, editor, Huffington Post South Africa. "So when the term white monopoly capital popped back into our discourse in the course of 2016, it caught on very quickly."

Bell Pottinger's involvement in this story was confirmed by what's being called The Gupta Leaks. A trove some of 200,000 emails originating from the Gupta family and employees of one of their companies, Oakbay Investments, was leaked to the press.

The leak shows correspondence between Bell Pottinger and the Guptas' close business partner, Duduzane Zuma - the president's son - hatching a media campaign to stop South Africans talking about state capture and start talking about the state of the economy.

White monopoly capital was pushed on social media and by certain political commentators and that rhetoric was then amplified by the Gupta-owned news outlets, the New Age newspaper and ANN7.

In one email, an executive at the firm says: For this campaign to be believed and to achieve credibility there will need to be discipline, continuity and consistency over a period.

When President Zuma was quizzed last week about his links to Bell Pottinger by the leader of the opposition, Mmusi Maimane, Zuma did not deny the existence of the media campaign, but rather chose to - as any PR expert would advise - deflect.

The Gupta Leaks have not only revealed the troublesome links between the Zuma government and the Guptas but also how members of the ruling party were being coached by Bell Pottinger.

Like Jessie Duarte, deputy secretary-general, and Colin Maine, the head of the ANC Youth League, who went on the air and defended the Guptas, which often meant attacking the media.

"We started seeing that the same individuals that were linked to the Guptas either by business or, they had visited the family's home, we could see that the same individuals would be the same individuals to come out and defend the Guptas," says Thanduxolo Jika, investigative journalist at the Sunday Times.

Propaganda is most effective when it taps into a reality, and there is a reality to the term white monopoly capital because lucrative sectors in the South African economy remain disproportionately white.

That advantage was gained during apartheid, a system that the then white-owned media largely supported or were censored.

Since then, the media landscape in the country has transformed to varying degrees of success, but because of the complicity of certain news outlets during apartheid, journalists today have credibility issues, especially on a story like state capture.

This is not a story about whether or not white monopoly capital exists. White South Africans' disproportionate hold of the economy cannot be denied and needs to be addressed. It's a story about how the pain and poverty of millions have been used to secure the interests of a few. And if journalists fall silent on that, this time around then South Africa's economic apartheid will never end. 

Contributors:

Ferial Haffajee, editor, Huffington Post South Africa
Andile Mngxitama, founder, Black First Land First
Thanduxolo Jika, investigative journalist, Sunday Times
Sam Cole, cofounder, AmaBhungane

Source: Al Jazeera