Scandalous revelations about the moguls of the Gupta family brazenly touting their influence over cabinet appointments and state enterprises – gained through their patronage of President Zuma – has outraged a broad spectrum of South Africans, including (at long last) people in the ANC itself.
It has never seemed more likely that Zuma will not see out his term of office. That said, the president is unlikely to simply roll over.
A naïve electorate is suddenly gobsmacked, hearing about how senior people in government can be summoned to appear at South Africa’s own Tammany Hall in Saxonwold, where they are offered cabinet positions in return for financial favours.
The court of public opinion has already convicted Zuma and the Guptas. Civil society is out for blood. The scandal has the potential to see mass action on the same scale as that which removed Mubarak, the last “pharaoh” of Egypt, and the ANC senses this.
We at last have an explanation for Zuma’s massive expansion of the cabinet and the constant, mystifying ministerial reshuffles. We knew all along one motivation was consolidating his political support and repaying favours, but many of us did now know how much of it was also about channelling the money. Having an efficient government that delivers to its citizens has always been at best third in line for consideration. The resulting neglect and reckless disregard for the citizenry can be seen everywhere.
From landing at the Waterkloof airbase in their private jet to paying ludicrously low rates on their million-dollar mansion, the Guptas have weathered scandals before, but this time their political protection is no longer guaranteed. The jewel in the Gupta’s crown – no other than the president of the country – has turned into their Achilles Heel as factions in the party and key supporters (unions, venerable foundations, the communist party, ANC stalwarts and former MK generals) align themselves against the incumbent. Looming local elections, however, queer the pitch.
It seems the Guptas have become the lightning rod for a country no longer able to live in denial about the ugly, barefaced corruption that is endemic in the ANC-run state. But the hostility towards the Guptas is not without a tinge of racism; Indophobia has even briefly trumped hatred of white capital, and umbrage has been taken because they are foreigners (as if it would be any better were the Guptas South African).
There is some hypocrisy at work here since the ANC has many channels of corruption and “state capture” (to use the buzzword) well beyond just a single family – the machinations of Chancellor House being the most obvious.
The official opposition must be breathing a sigh of relief that years ago they had the courage to go public about the Guptas giving them money.
It is not just that Zuma has been a rotten president for those to the right of the party and a bitter disappointment to those on the left, but his real sin and the reason he will be taken down is that Zuma and sons have been greedily enriching themselves ahead of the party and allowing the outsider Guptas to bully ANC appointees as if they were their minions.
ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe is now tasked with getting to the bottom of what he called a “mafia state”. He may even redeem himself; he has either been very bad at his job or complicit, since as the SG how could he not have noticed what was going on right under his nose for the past seven years?
We also need to ask why in contravention of anti-corruption legislation those making the allegations today did not previously report these audacious attempts to bribe them as is required by the law? They might have turned offers down, but they must have known their replacements were pliable and embarking on the corruption they were not prepared to do. Have they not therefore been complicit in a conspiracy of silence? A silence that has allowed corruption to flourish. We need to understand how the pressures work in government that turn honest men into mute collaborators. We have seen it time and again, from Mbeki and Aids to Zuma and Nkandla.
Now, the ANC wants people to approach it directly with information. On the one hand, this is of course quite wrong. Charges should be laid with the police. The intelligence services should be looking into the president’s relationship with a foreign family and the directorate for priority crime investigations should be probing the Guptas. The public protector should have already launched an investigation. Parliament should long ago have passed a vote of no confidence in the president.
On the other hand, South Africans have to realise – though not accept – that sadly they now live in a hollowed out State. The ANC has made sure that it is the only body with the actual power to remove a sitting president and this president, like his predecessor, has tamed every institution that could act against him – from the public broadcaster to the national prosecuting authority.
If South Africa is ever going to deal with corruption and so-called state capture, it will have to see that its institutions are strong and independent. The ANC cannot be stronger than the State, even if it is the majority party. And a president has to put his country before the party and most definitely before himself. The root of the problem remains the way the ANC interprets democracy and the way it understands the concept of a State.
We also need to get to grips with a much deeper understanding of corruption if we are to effectively treat it. President Zuma spent ten hard years on Robben Island. What happened to that man, the freedom fighter? What happened to the impressive man I briefly met for the first time in 1995? He is one of the highest paid presidents in the world, and yet this is apparently still not enough for him. How is it, as author Jacob Dlamini once put it, that yesterday’s liberators become today’s looters?
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