South Africa

Highway to 2014: ANC plays down the Gupta connection

By Greg Nicolson 21 May 2013

President Jacob Zuma doesn’t need to explain who his friends are. South Africans have a bias against facts and the Waterkloof scandal, or Guptnkandla, has united the ANC. So said the party’s Secretary General Gwede Mantashe on Monday. Ahead of the 2014 elections, he tried to shield the president from criticism and cast doubt on divisions within the party, but it won’t be easy to conceal the Gupta in the room. By GREG NICOLSON.

On Monday, Mantashe briefed media at Luthuli House on the party’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting over the weekend and distanced Zuma and other top ANC members from the Waterkloof scandal. “Did the president take us into his confidence about the relationship between [him] and the Gupta family? I’m not sure if that is necessary,” said Mantashe, who explained that what’s important is whether the Gupta family acted in the way it did because of its relationship to Zuma.

The secretary general took issue with the public’s view of ANC leaders and their role in the Gupta family organising a private plane to land at an Air Force base. Regardless of what the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster report found, South Africans will say there has been a cover-up, said Mantashe. “Facts don’t matter. Perceptions matter,” he summed up the public’s view on the matter. It’s not necessarily true that if the scandal occurred in a country like the United States a top member of government would resign, Mantashe argued.

President Zuma’s close friends and party affiliates the Gupta family caused controversy by landing a private jet at the Waterkloof Air Force base in Pretoria on 29 April. An investigation found that officials did not act according to procedure in approving the landing but neither the executive nor ministers were found culpable.

“The NEC agreed to wait for the report of the [Directors-General] as commissioned by the ministers in the security cluster,” Mantashe said. “The report has now been finalised and made public [it will be made public this week]. The ANC welcomes the outcome of the investigation. We appreciate the details and the clarity given. It provides the basic information on what happened. This will help the parliamentary debate on Wednesday. We are confident that the relevant ministers will take the process to its logical conclusion so that this incident does not repeat itself.”

On April 30, Mantashe issued a strongly worded statement condemning the landing at Waterkloof as an “indication that all and sundry may be permitted to undermine the Republic, its citizens and its borders.” He repeatedly called the Air Force base a national key point. Justice Minister Jeff Radebe revealed on Sunday that Waterkloof is not a national key point but governed under stricter security legislation. Regardless of how it’s classified, the landing was “not normal, totally abnormal,” Mantashe said Monday.

He denied the issue had soured his relationship with the president. Mantashe has read about unnamed NEC members claiming there’s been a split, but he only finds out about it in the papers, he said. “To me this issue has not divided the organisation. If we can actually talk about it, it will actually pull us together.”

The Waterkloof affair is one of a number of scandals surrounding Zuma and the ANC ahead of the 2014 elections, and the party is under pressure to maintain its hefty majority. “In the face of the growing anti-majoritarian positioning of the opposition forces and the agitation for discontent, the ANC will continue telling the story of our country and therefore remind society of the progress made over the last 20 years,” said Mantashe, a clear response to the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) Know Your DA campaign.

The ANC has chosen Amos Masondo to head its 2014 election campaign while Manne Dipico has been appointed as national list coordinator and “he will be deputised by a woman.” Masondo was mayor of Johannesburg between 2001 and 2011. The ANC is expected to face stiff competition niggling at its majority in 2014, with millions of young South Africans eligible to vote for the first time. The DA is trying to expand its vote in Gauteng and Eastern Cape. There’s also the emergence of Agang, Mamphela Ramphele’s “political party platform”, and a slew of leftist movements opposed to the ANC.

Currently, the party doesn’t have a vocal Youth League to support its campaign. Since the NEC disbanded the leadership of the Youth League, a national task team has travelled to six provinces and visited dozens of regions to consult on issues facing the young lions. Mantashe said he’s happy with the progress. The organisation will be racing against time to appoint new national leaders that will have enough legitimacy to rally the youth in 2014.

Key to those elections will be trying to convince voters that the party has not been captured by wealthy individuals. Mantashe said it is “a terrible trend in society” that “people with money can buy anything and anyone.” Zuma – surrounded in scandals from Schabir Shaik to the Gupta family – may be seen as the archetype of that problem.

The ANC is likely to accept the report into the Waterkloof scandal and its contention that the protocol breach was orchestrated by officials directly involved with the Air Force base and diplomatic controls rather than the Presidency or ministers. Mantashe reiterated Radebe’s concerns about name-dropping. He regularly finds people trying to use the influence of someone else to advance their interests, he said.

The issue of name-dropping may have been a key reason why officials circumvented protocol to allow the Gupta family’s guests to arrive at Waterkloof, but it’s unlikely to convince those who doubt the president’s independence. Mantashe said it himself: the public is guided by perceptions rather than facts. That’s especially true when people don’t believe the facts they’re given. And it’s crucial to remember as the party approaches next year’s vote. DM

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Photo: ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe briefing media at Luthuli House on the party’s national executive committee this weekend. (Greg Nicolson)

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