We now know that President Jacob Zuma and his entourage have attempted to purchase for themselves a great, gilded oil-soaked escape hatch. This country has suffered many atrocities, slights and insults. So perhaps it’s apposite that we’ve earned ourselves a president who built himself a quarter-of-a-billion rand palace, and couldn’t be assed to live in it. By RICHARD POPLAK.
There are many versions of the story, but the one I like best is the simplest: Grigory Rasputin first encountered the Virgin Mary on a Siberian wheat field, where she informed him that the Tsar’s heir apparent of the Russia throne, Alexei Nikolaevich, was suffering from the effects of hemophilia. And so this soothsaying peasant nutjob from the Siberian bog made his way to St Petersburg, weaseled himself into the royal court, cured the boy’s malaise (or, rather, didn’t—the condition was an inevitable and incurable side-effect of royal inbreeding), and ended up running Russia.
It’s that easy, stealing a country.
Indeed, within a hideously short period of time, Rasputin became the shadow state. This “impudent profligate” was said to have brokered a peace with the Germans on his own terms; captured every aspect of the royal house, up to and including the souls of the Tsar and Tsarina; and had his way with every society woman worthy of the designation. The newspaper censors blotted out details of his antics with daubs of ink the locals termed “caviare”, while royal sycophants dismissed the stories as fake news. As ever, the rumours were blessedly anodyne when compared with the truth. Rasputin, wrote a socialite, “became a dusk enveloping all our world, eclipsing the sun. How could so pitiful a wretch throw so vast a shadow? It was inexplicable, maddening, almost incredible.”
“The country could no longer tell the real from the false because… it had become a large lunatic asylum,” wrote one of Rasputin’s many biographers. The rich enjoyed lifestyles unprecedented in their lavishness; the poor lived worse than pigs. Rasputin – the devil-eyed sangoma from Shitsville, Siberia – was not the cause, but a symptom of a larger disease: the complete dissolution of Russian society. He would eventually meet his end, as would the Tsar and Tsarina, following which Russia undertook perhaps the greatest social experiment in the history of our species. Roughly 20-million people perished before communism was called off in favour of a less murder-y gangster state.
And Russia now has the means to insinuate itself, Rasputin-like, into the affairs of other countries, this one very much included.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the Gupta family. Brothers Atul, Ajay and Rajesh are neither mystics nor sangomas, but merely straight-up shysters from Uttar Pradesh, India. It’s unlikely that they conferred with the Virgin Mary, or any other canonised celebrity, before making for South Africa in 1994. No need to bother. Like all of the new “democracies” emerging after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the inherent opportunities were obvious: those closest to the declared winners would be accorded the bulk of the spoils.
The Guptas touched down in a country brutalised by 350 years of colonialism. Strangely, if ultimately of no consequence as far as the Gs were concerned, it was a nation run by a living saint and his court of bi-curious neolibs/commies. Most of them belonged to a party which had convinced itself that it had won the war against regime, when it was instead preparing to extend apartheid’s half-life: having expanded the franchise, it was now time to get paid. The Guptas understood that if they registered a company with an African-ish name – Sahara! – and were generous with gifts and seats on the board, there was a good chance they could secure government contracts from state-owned institutions hoping to expand and modernise.
Ten years later, they were mingling with ANC royalty. As luck would have it, when they first met Jacob Zuma, his benefactors were just about running out of money, patience and get-out-of-jail-free cards. The Guptas took a bet on the Zuma brand, one that has paid off many millions of times over. Just how deeply the Zupta alliance extended into the workings of the state has somehow become a point of ideological contention – if you’re for them, you’re for something called “radical economic transformation”. But a recently published academic paper called “Betrayal of the Promise: How South Africa is being stolen”, which was this weekend inadvertently paired with a cache of e-mails leaked to the Sunday Times and the City Press, was dumped on the digital laps of South Africans, just as the ANC was engaged in another of their increasingly contentious National Executive Committee meetings. Coincidence? Of course not.
So, can Zuma last through all this?
That’s no longer an interesting question. Rather, can the state survive the assault he has perpetuated against it? And if it does, can it survive the near equally horrific alternatives?
* * *
Another way of asking these questions is, Who are the Guptas, and what do they mean? Are they, as per their own Bell Pottinger-engineered talking points, the brown economic empowerment alternative to white monopoly capital? Or are they what they seem: a bunch of opportunistic scumbags functioning with the blessing and protection of the most powerful man in South Africa?
No modern capitalist state is immune from corporate bullying – fact, high level political inducement is what defines the modern state. This is certainly true of a country like South Africa, which has historically promoted monopoly concentration in “critical” sectors like banking, insurance and finance. At the dawn of the new dispensation, the ANC was unwilling to disrupt those old concentrations of wealth, but rather chose to siphon quantities of cash out of those legacy companies in order to create a new elite in the name of “empowerment”. Meanwhile, state-owned enterprises were rejigged to hand contracts to an expanded and entrenched secondary elite, with the hope that a new middle-class would be magicked into being by this judicious manipulation of tenderpreneurial-ship.
These choices have proven to be catastrophic. On the one hand, it has meant that the old monopolies remained intact, and that Broederbond institutions like Naspers and Absa have continued to flourish, albeit under the protection of a “progressive” constitutional framework. (Think of this crew, and their board appointees in government, as the “constitutionalists”.) On the other hand, there were the increasingly opaque mechanisms that disbursed government tenders to a cabal tied to the ruling party. (This bunch was termed by the authors of “Betrayal of the Promise” as the “radicals”. But that’s just plain wrong. They’re simply mimicking the apartheid Afrikaner empowerment system, which makes them the “reactionaries”.)
And so, a recipe for the perfect shit sandwich, with the South African people as the filler.
Leaving the constitutionalists out of the equation for a moment, over the past week, the extent to which one family has manipulated and corrupted the reactionaries has become even clearer. “Betrayal of the Promise” (um, what promise?) weaves the Gupta Epic into a comprehensive narrative, the summary of which amounts to just another typical example of:
[A] global trend in the growth of increasingly authoritarian, neopatrimonial regimes where a symbiotic relationship between the constitutional and shadow states is maintained, but with real power shifting increasingly into the networks that comprise the shadow state.
Yup, nothing special about all of this nonsense. And on top of that, we now have e-mail confirmation that the neo-Broederbond determines the fate of the connected few, and by extension, the country. Backing up much of what we learned from former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report, filed right at the end of her tenure, we can no longer even pretend to doubt the filthiness of players such as the Minister of Mineral Resources, Mosebenzi Zwane, the former Minister of Communications (now Minister of Public Service), Faith Muthambi, principals in the energy, broadcasting, and defence SOEs and, of course, the involvement of the usual genetically blessed middle-man – the president’s favoured son, Duduzane Zuma.
The most gratifying thing about this latest episode in national debasement was the tone of the leaked e-mails. We’re living through Goodfellas II: Finishing School – these gangsters are polite! But the most depressing, if telling, element was the scheme to move the Zuma clan from the lavish homestead in Nkandla to a new plot in Dubai. Behold the snivelling appeal to the fake king of a fake emirate – “It is with this sentiment that I am happy to inform you that my family has decided to make the UAE a second home. It will be a great honour for me and my family to gain your patronage during our proposed residency in the UAE.” This was just more proof, as if we required any, that South Africa isn’t really a country. Even the president, a Zulu chauvinist who belongs to this land as surely as anyone ever has, couldn’t give a fuck whether he ends up here or not. His Zupta conglomerate is just another version of the Dutch East India Company, robbing the place blind, and then running for paradise.
* * *
All of this being said, our Rasputins are by no means dead. Their proxy has survived another attempted purge – this latest NEC meeting has ended inconclusively, but we are not at this moment of writing president-less. Zuma’s reps have ensured us that he fully backs a commission of inquiry into state capture – to be held at some indeterminate time in the future. The endless process of picking through the State of Capture report will begin in… October! To the rank and file in the ANC, most of whom are dealing with their own specific local problems, these new scandals will only serve to undermine the general belief in democracy, and not their support for Zuma’s faction.
Indeed, the point is to destroy any and all sense that democracy makes.
Anything can, and probably will, happen in the next few months – many revelations have yet to be excreted into the mainstream. The cumulative damage to the state has been incalculable, and while Zuma and his cronies will probably thrive in their fancy new homes, when they are gone, South Africa will have to rebuild almost from scratch. Neither the constitutionalists, nor the reactionaries, have done this place much good. South Africans will have to take this place back from the usurpers.
But who are South Africans? And what is South Africa? There’s always a devil-eyed Rasputin waiting to answer that question. The Guptas are proof that the shadow state has triumphed here as it has all over the world, and the de facto “constitutional” state is barely worth the paper it was written on. Yes, there have been some lovely court wins, but the bad guys are still bad-guying, and democracy is still being steadily flushed into oblivion.
In this, I kind of see the Zuptas’ point. Fake Dubai is infinitely more real than this joint. DM
Photo: Grigori Rasputin (Wikimedia Commons), Atul Gupta.
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved