Early on Thursday, amaBhungane and Scorpio released what promises to be the beginning of a series of explosive revelations about the relationship between the Gupta family, their employees, and SA government officials. The Gupta e-mails trove is full of evidence of how the family were able to get their way, how they were able to land incredibly lucrative deals, and how they’ve been ripping off every South African. Still, in the strange and slightly twisted current politics of our democracy, the real question is actually this: What’s Next? For President Jacob Zuma, his officials, and particularly, the Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
The reaction to the publication of the articles based on #GuptaLeaks that have so far been trawled through was always going to be fast, loud and furious. So many people have so much to say. There are so many facts to check, payments to examine and dots to join. It’s not surprising. Public sentiment is so against the Gupta family right this moment, that if they did have a social life outside their Saxonwold compound, you would probably find restaurants who refused to serve them, and waiters who would spit in their food. But in the hard light of political calculus, one has to ask a set of different questions. About whether there will actually be any change to our politics as a result of this.
Obviously, these e-mails help Zuma’s critics and weaken his supporters.
Within hours of the first publication of these communications on Thursday morning, SACP second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila was taking questions about his reaction to this. He was asked directly if he felt that, considering the role he appears to have played here, Gigaba should resign. His answer to EWN was this:
“People like him, either they should come out clearly about why they should not step down. Quite clearly, the majority of those who are affected, they should not hold public office on our behalf. And I think it is as easy as that. That includes the current Minister of Finance Malusi Gigaba.
“You will remember, when he was appointed we defended him on the basis of his own integrity, but it is quite clearly now on the evidence that is out there in public that this points to a different direction. And all of them that are involved should leave public office so that our movement can continue to lead government with integrity. Otherwise, there’s no way that our people can trust government with such people at the helm.”
It is difficult to argue with this response. Particularly his point that it is difficult to trust government with these people still at the helm. For years, one of the problems this society has faced is that when its president has called for action against corruption, everyone has laughed behind their hands. No one believes him, he has no credibility left, no legitimacy to make such a call. Unfortunately, now, many of the other people in government are tainted in exactly the same way.
Of course, Gigaba’s people also have their response. His spokesperson, Mayihlome Tshwete, points to the need for an independent commission to collect evidence, in what looks like a tilt towards the ANC national executive committee’s decision to call for a proper commission that will examine “state capture”. He then says:
“We should refrain from using this as politics to target certain people… we should try to avoid selectiveness, and asking others to do what they themselves are not willing to do. The minister has been willing to answer questions on this, but saying a person is guilty of something because his adviser received e-mails asking for assistance could be a little unfair. But I will allow them to express themselves, and if the minister wants to express himself, he will.”
When Gigaba was appointed, he was always going to have to deal with the problem that this entire political story is about the integrity of the person who replaced Pravin Gordhan. Life isn’t fair, but such was the context that this is the only way to see it. These revelations underscore this point. Gigaba’s starring role in the e-mails we’ve seen so far is to be the person who appointed Iqbal Sharma to the board of Transnet. Sharma then arranged the deals that saw the Guptas receiving R10-million for every R50-million locomotive bought by Transnet. That’s quite a lot of profit when you don’t have to put up any capital that could be lost, or expend any effort.
Gigaba’s people can shout and scream all they like about how it was not he who did the deal, but surely a minister who makes an appointment should have done some due diligence beforehand, and must take some responsibility if that appointment then turns out to be crooked. And, lest we forget, and if we join some dots, there is a pattern here. Gigaba’s adviser also helped the Guptas with visa problems. And Gigaba received gifts from them, celebrated Diwali with them and tried to help them take over the VVIP terminal at OR Tambo International.
Gigaba’s optics problem really comes in two different ways. First, there is the political perception problem with South Africans. In some ways, it’s not such a big problem, people either support Zuma or oppose him, and you can probably work out which way they feel about Gigaba based on how they feel about Zuma. That said, the point made by Mapaila that “we defended him when he was appointed” but now want him to step down suggests that some minds may have changed. Those who were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt may no longer do that.
His second problem is in actually performing the duties of finance minister. He needs to speak to business people, investors, ratings agencies. In these meetings, trust is crucial. These are people who make decisions about whether to invest here and whether to advise other people to invest here. And it’s usually someone else’s money they’re investing. Gigaba is supposed to be the best salesman the country has. But what role can you perform when you have all of these question marks against you. And that’s before we consider whether or not he has access to a private jet on demand. All of it available through a quick Web search.
Our business people are now in the position our mining industry has been in for the last two years. They had to deal with Mosebenzi Zwane, a man who appeared to close mines for political purposes. Now business has to deal with someone who they must surely see as captured and completely unreliable.
All political considerations aside, the phrase “the smoking gun” has been heard loudly and often of late. For Zuma’s critics, it’s the evidence they were looking for that proves the entire context. But, as in any murder mystery, finding the smoking gun is not enough. If the police force and the prosecutors are captured, you cannot expect an arrest and a prosecution. Judges can only hear cases brought before them; to do a private prosecution takes time, money, and the permission of the NPA head, not an easy mountain to climb.
That then leaves the question, will any of this Smoking Gun Parade change anything in South African reality. Bluntly, if people in the ANC’s national executive committee weren’t prepared to vote Zuma out after Nkandla, after the local elections, after all they and voters knew about him this last weekend, well it does look like a forlorn hope after this. Unless, of course, there is even more damning information in these mails we don’t yet know, which does involve Zuma in a direct and obviously compromising way.
For the moment, this seems unlikely. If we learnt anything from the Waterkloof landing, it’s that Zuma leaves no footprints. There is no direct communication in written form, no e-mails, text messages, signatures. Instead there are officials who can be dispensed with. Everything is at arm’s length, a minister appoints a board member who then does the deal.
However, what these smoking guns can do is strengthen those who wish to intensify their campaigns against Zuma. Business, organised and otherwise, can simply use this to refuse to work with Gigaba, and will not have to fear any backlash from the general public. Cosatu and the SACP, both of whom already oppose Zuma, may find it easier to convince their rank and file to actively campaign against him. For them, and their members, the smoking gun is important. And of course the opposition parties are already having a field day.
On the balance, this added intensity is most unlikely to end with the removal of Zuma. But then again, there are still many gigabytes to trawl through. DM
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