South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: Ding-dong, the Guptas are gone. Which nightmare will replace them?

By Richard Poplak 29 August 2016

Looking for an energy company? A newspaper? A manse in Saxonwold? All of these, plus much much more, are newly on the block. The Gupta family, we learnt over the weekend, are completely divesting from South Africa. In these perilous times, a huge opportunity has emerged for a lucky someone to purchase a number of strategic companies, many with ties to state-owned enterprises, the energy sector and, of course, the looming deal with the Russians to build our nuclear future. In the final reckoning, muses RICHARD POPLAK, we may end up missing Atul and the boys.

Ding dong, the Guptas are gone
That is why we sing this song
Ding dong, they owned the land
And with their bag man they killed the rand

Ding dong, why do we sigh?
We want to to visit our money in Dubai
Ding dong, now it’s worse
Turns out the country was an open purse

South African nursery rhyme, circa 2023

The Romans had a Latin tagline that undergirded their entire legal system: nemo dat quod non habet. Nobody can give what he does not have. It was a fundamental principle of Roman law that someone who had no effective title to a thing – a jug, a horse, a house, a TV station – could not pass a valid title on to someone else.

The reasoning seems obvious. But it doesn’t appear to work down here in South Africa. Take, for instance, the immensely beloved Gupta family. Recently of Saxonwold, earlier of Uttar Pradesh, now of Dubai, they are our local version of Pokemon characters – every South African has a favourite. Ajay, Atul, Rajesh/Tony, or wee nephew Varun: Collect em all! So furry. So cute. So huggable.

So state capture-y.

Like most South Africans, I was horrified to learn that Julius Malema, Commander-in-Chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters – an opposition party that garnered barely 6% of the vote in 2014 – demanded that the Guptas pack their bags and head for the indoor ski slopes of an oil-jacked Gulf emirate. Who was Malema, president of nothing more than a pseudo-commie cargo cult, to rid us of our very own collectible gangster pantheon?

After all, the Guptas have played a vital financial and cultural role in the history of post-apartheid South Africa, largely because they have revealed us for what we are. When they arrived here in 1993 – in the middle of a civil conflict in a country wavering between despair and hope, and trying to free itself from an impossible past – they knew what they were looking at. It was the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, of the communist fever dream, of history. In Germany, across the former Soviet Union, across Africa, the 20th century’s loathed regimes tumbled. Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, has always been one of postcolonial corruption’s spiritual homes, and the Guptas must have known that the governance vacuums appearing all over the second and third world presented massive opportunities for those willing to stuff currency into manila envelopes, and to pass said envelopes across a teak desk to a smiling wannabe politician.

If one hoped to get rich, one needed to grasp the financial contours of the End of History. The age of gangster capitalism had dawned.

* * *

Had the Guptas decided to decamp to any of the Soviet satellites, their skulls would now form part of an oligarch’s vodka serving set. They chose South Africa, and found the country’s elite-in-waiting to be charming and urbane – as a rule, they had no intention of turning Indian business delegations into crockery. The country, these elites insisted, was open for business; they mouthed the words “Foreign Direct Investment” like a religious benediction. They had listened to the great and the wise in spectacular hotels in European capitals, and they were told that their socialist wainscoting would have to be stripped and replaced with something sleeker, sharper.

Everyone, you see, would get rich.

But some, to quote the newly capitalist Deng Xiaoping, would get rich first. In their Ready to Govern guff, the ANC spoke of creating a black corporate elite ballasted by a massive black middle class, both of which would send money trickling down to the country’s numberless poor. But the Guptas, who learnt in Uttar Pradash how craven political castes operate, knew how the game worked. Those connected to the ruling party would be deployed into a purged civil service and, more to the point, into the bidding wars for vastly lucrative state tenders that were intended to contribute to the building of a nation. The key was to buy people on the inside, and the bigger the better.

It was almost too easy, no?

Then, true love struck. In 2003, they met the country’s deputy president, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. Now this was a man with appetites, but even by the average standards of a kleptocracy, he was remarkably easy to buy. It turned out that his main benefactor and financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, was running into what we’ll generously describe here as legal trouble.

Zuma was thus looking for friends.

The Guptas, he collected them all. More important, the Guptas collected Zumas, placing them like trophies on boards or in management positions they were in no conceivable way qualified to fill. They established Sahara Computers and Sahara Systems (Pty) Ltd, and began stuffing the board with notables. But the real prize, as most raiders of this land have always known, was the stuff in the ground. They kicked off Oakbay Resources and Energy, secured the Shiva Uranium Mine, Tageta Exploration and Resources, and JIC Mining Services, to name but a few.

Some people got rich first.

Most of us know the particulars of this story, even if we don’t yet seem to have grasped the wider implications. For many years, the Guptas have had the run of the country. They landed their party planes at our national strategic points. TNA, their media conglomerate, was designed to bleed advertising revenue from the mainstream press, and will have probably accelerated the death of big chunks of South African media, to say nothing of choking off digital’s growth. They’ve been accused of appointing ministers, and proffering those appointments in their lair.

And now, because shit got too hot, because the banks are treating them like a bad case of gonorrhea, because the “time is right”, they’ve decided to sell up? Just like that? Because they were bullied by a former fat guy in red overalls?

Nah, not so fast.

* * *

In the truest sense of the term, the Guptas have nothing to sell. If this were Rome back in the good old days, they’d be found to possess no valid title, and they’d be thrown into a pit with Russell Crowe’s jockstrap. The vacuum they’ve created is similar to the vacuum they filled when they arrived here: the corruption of colonialism was replaced by the corruption of apartheid was replaced by the corruption of the post-apartheid era, and nothing has ever been done to break the cycle.

Just consider the following: there are no new regulations governing the tender process, and there is no financial transparency in the political sphere. In fact, due to the fact that Zuma now basically runs the country’s state-owned enterprises, the situation has got worse.

Who will buy the Gupta empire? What will they do with these companies that are little more than shells to move money around a crony system? Oakbay is not a real business. It’s a working model of gangster capitalism in a gangster capitalist state.

South Africans would do well to consider the fact that, like so many of the other states the Guptas could have chosen to capture at the end of history, there is no freedom to be enjoyed in the grip of all this graft. The Romans asked many questions about valid title, the most important being: how was it acquired? If they didn’t like the answer, they had many ways of dealing with the transgressor.

None of them involved a sprawling mansion in the heat-blasted vastness of Arabia. DM

Photo: Atul Gupta, President Jacob Zuma.

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