South Africa

Keeping Up With The Guptas: What’s behind the anti-Saxonwold revolt

By Ranjeni Munusamy 1 February 2016

In an organisation where the Tambo, Mandela, Mbeki and Sisulu names were once revered, there is now only one family that holds power. For years, people have tried to figure out how the Gupta family is able to maintain their chokehold on the ANC and government despite rubbing so many people up the wrong way. Now a revolt is brewing against them in the ANC and the tripartite alliance. This revolt will probably not be able to halt the capture of the state by this powerful family and their business and political network, but it is a proxy battle over leadership in the ANC. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

It is amazing how it takes just one or two people in the ANC to speak up on an issue for others to find their voices. The Sunday Times reported this week that some of President Jacob Zuma’s closest allies in Cosatu and South African Communist Party (SACP) had spoken out about their growing irritation with the Gupta’s influence on senior leaders in the ANC and government. On Sunday, senior members of the ANC and the alliance, who ordinarily avoid the subject, were suddenly emboldened, declaring that “the fight is on”.

Of course it might take one photo-op between the president and his friends for them to eat their words, and the irritation to go back underground.

For years there have been mutterings in the ANC and the alliance about the Gupta contagion in the movement, particularly after some ministers found out about their appointments from members of the Gupta family rather than from Zuma in 2009. From then on, the Gupta family became more emboldened by every scandal rather than shirk away when their influence over the president and other high-ranking people in the state were exposed.

Zuma was warned by his intelligence heads about the Guptas undermining the integrity of the state and bullying state officials in order to influence the awarding of government contracts. Zuma opted to ignore the warnings, leading to a fallout with his trusted officials he had deployed to the intelligence services. Gibson Njenje, Moe Shaik and Jeff Maqetuka lost their jobs as a result.

The landing of a jet hired by the Guptas for a family wedding at the Waterkloof Air Force Base in April 2013 led to ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe lashing out, saying the organisation “shall never allow a situation where our ports of entry and national key points are penetrated with impunity”. “The African National Congress will never rest where there is any indication that all and sundry may be permitted to undermine the Republic, it’s citizens and its borders,” Mantashe said in a statement.

That is as strong a rebuke as you can get from the ANC headquarters, and there was an assumption that the episode would have severed the bond of friendship between Zuma and the Guptas. But as soon as the dust settled, the Guptas resumed summoning state officials to their Saxonwold home and making phone calls to the president in people’s presence to affirm his approval of their actions.

Zuma continued his visits to their family home and ministers continued their puppet dances at the Gupta-owned The New Age business breakfasts. After major ANC and state events, it is now the norm that the top six leaders of the ANC and Cabinet ministers attend The New Age breakfasts, with Zuma sitting alongside the family head, Atul Gupta.

Those in the ANC who were uncomfortable with the Gupta’s influence had to suck it up and deal with the fact that they had become the most powerful family in the ANC – it is the first time a family outside the struggle royalty, or any involvement in the liberation movement, or South Africa for that matter, has so much power.

The Guptas have been able to use their money and networks effectively to penetrate the centres of political influence. Some of their sympathisers argue that this is simply good business prowess and if their actions do amount to corruption, this should be excused as they are at least breaking the dominance of white business. The fact that the Guptas care less about South Africa’s racial dynamics or black empowerment is apparently beside the point.

But the Gupta family have now made themselves some powerful enemies, which could lead to a bloc in the ANC turning against them. The confluence between the Guptas and the “premier league”, a faction led by the premiers of North West, the Free State and Mpumalanga, as well as the ANC Youth League and Women’s League, has exposed the family as not only wanting to influence the awarding of contracts but also the succession battle in the ANC.

At October’s ANC national general council, the premier league’s campaign was denounced and premiers Ace Magashule, Supra Mahumapelo and David Mabuza denied that they were running a campaign to influence the 2017 ANC leadership elections. But the influence of the faction was felt first in the appointment of Mosebenzi Zwane as Mineral Resources Minister in September and then David van Rooyen as Finance Minister (for four days) in December. Both these ministers are believed to be under the thumb of the Guptas as nominees of Magashule and Mahumapelo respectively.

Of course nobody in the ANC and the alliance could openly express their reservations about these appointments in relation to the Gupta family because Cabinet posts are the sole prerogative of the president. However, Cosatu and the SACP have now set the ball rolling by confirming their concerns about the Guptas.

SACP second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila told the Sunday Times he spoke out against the Guptas at last week’s ANC national executive committee lekgotla to show they will not tolerate “corporate capture of the government”.

“We felt we needed to raise it in a meeting because people have been speaking about this thing, hush hush, gossiping about it and sometimes it has been raised in order to attack the president.

“We have heard [of] the role of the Guptas and we wanted to tell them [NEC members] that they do not account to the Guptas. They account to the liberation movement, headed by the ANC and its government, and not to individual families… so they don’t feel scared that if the Guptas call them they have an obligation to go [to the Guptas’ Saxonwold compound] or they would be removed from government,” Mapaila told the Sunday Times.

Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini told the paper the federation was concerned about the Guptas’ perceived role in recent developments in the mining industry. This relates to Eskom buying coal for its Arnot power plant in Mpumalanga from a mine bought by a company controlled by the Guptas after a contract with Exxaro Resources Ltd. was not renewed. The sale of the Optimum Colliery was allegedly facilitated by Zwane, who flew to Zurich in December to meet the CEO of Glencore, which owned the mine.

Cosatu and the National Union of Mineworkers are up in arms about the deal because of the threats of retrenchment and closure of the Exxaro Arnot mine. At a media briefing at the end of the ANC lekgotla last week, Mantashe said the ANC could not get involved in the matter and it was up to the trade union movement to challenge the closure of the mine. He did not want to comment on the involvement of the Gupta family.

Earlier in January however, Mantashe said in an interview that the Guptas have not taken control of the ANC but have captured “individuals” in the party. He did not say who these individuals were. Mantashe told The Sowetan the problem was not the businesspeople but with ANC members who allowed businesspeople to use them. “I don’t blame the corporation that captured you. Actually I must focus on dealing with you as a proxy,” he said.

Now that the influence of the Guptas has been challenged and the battle for power in the ANC is out in the open, ANC and alliance leaders say a big fight is coming. Provinces opposed to the premier league and the SACP and Cosatu believe that they cannot sit back while there are clear attempts to manipulate the succession battle in the ANC. The SACP has been particularly agitated by the premier league’s efforts to have their senior leaders, Blade Nzimande and Rob Davies, booted out of the Cabinet.

The premier league faction, backed by the Guptas, is supporting Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as their candidate for ANC president. While Cyril Ramaphosa has up to now not had a strong lobby behind him, opposition to the Gupta-premier league clique is uniting other provinces such as Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, as well as Cosatu and the SACP behind him. This faction might not be able to unravel the Gupta tentacles but there is now recognition that the end goal is to completely control the ANC and the state.

This will be difficult to undo once Zuma leaves office, so while there is concern about causing more damage to the president, levels of frustration are building in ANC and alliance structures. It is likely that as soon as the local government elections are over, the ANC succession battle will explode into the open.

Until then, the Guptas will continue to expand their empire, with South Africa’s nuclear build programme likely to deliver a big windfall. They are now heavily invested in the outcome of the ANC’s 2017 national conference, as is every faction that wants the wheel of fortune to swing their way.

This will be the ANC’s most high-stakes leadership race ever, heavily influenced, ironically, by a family that had no role whatsoever in the life and history of the 104-year-old organisation. DM

Photo: Atul Gupta, Jacob Zuma. (Jordi Matas)


In other news...

South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.

On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.

And on the other side are those who believe in the ethos of a country whose constitution was once declared the most progressive in the world. The hope that truth, justice and accountability in politics, business and society is not simply fairy tale dust sprinkled in great electoral speeches; but rather a cause that needs to be intentionally acted upon every day.

However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.

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