Well, it seemed a good idea at the time
11 December 2017 09:22 (South Africa)
South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: #GuptaFreaks – How the monsters are beginning to eat themselves

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa
Photo: Antoine Wirtz – Scene from Hell (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been a busy few weeks. Let’s get caught up. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Many people have asked what it feels like to trawl through the trove of 200,000 emails recently leaked to several of this country’s media outlets, and that are now slowly eking their way out into the rest of the politico-mediascape. After almost two weeks of considered perusal, I’d have to say that the data, in its streams and fluctuations, mimics the act of digestion – but in reverse.

First, we begin with the effluent: the big pile of steaming mess that is South Africa under the administration of President Jacob Zuma. Then we make our way through winding digital colons, both small and large, in order to reconstitute all of the morsels that have been broken down by ass bacteria like Ajay, Atul and Tony Gupta, along with the lieutenants, consiglieres, politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, pilots, bankers, sommeliers, bricklayers, bagmen and dog walkers they’ve purchased along the way.

In our collective proctological endeavours, I’d say the media has about reached the epiglottis, and by this stage, a couple of phenomena have become achingly clear. The first is the sheer scale of the Guptas’ operation. I’m not convinced that this was by design. The Gupta boys are old school schmatte salesmen, congenitally disposed to chase any business opportunity, no matter how quasi-legal or bizarre. The emails portray them as cartoon capitalists, so outsized and frenzied in their accumulation that their email folders are one polite slapstick routine after another. Oil from the Central African Republic. Diamonds from Lesotho. Arms for India. Franken-computers for South Africa. Locomotives for, well, no one. Garbage coal for one of the world’s largest power utilities. What about a newspaper? A television channel? A fancy annual awards show? Some cricket? A piece of an airline? A piece of another airline? Maybe a private jet?

The lunatic disparateness of the operation – the hundreds of spaghetti strands that, wrangled into a PowerPoint presentation, would result in a thermonuclear meltdown of Microsoft’s OS – is what will ultimately send the Guptas on the run. They have been undone by their ADHD approach to financial betterment. In order to steal absolutely everything, they’ll end up with less than nothing.

Just as the scale of their operations has become clear, so too has the scale of the damage they’ve wrought. I don’t mean this purely in financial terms – no one has yet run the numbers on how much their various businesses, letterboxes, and shells within shells, have leached from the fiscus, and I’m not confident this will ever be ascertained to anyone’s satisfaction. I’m referring to the fact that the mechanisms of the Guptas’ operations hijacked the hope, however misguided, that a legitimate black middle- and upper-class could be borne on the backs of our state-owned-enterprises – South African versions of the “iron rice bowls” that in less than three decades powered 300-million Chinese into the middle class, and a further 200-million out of abject poverty. In 1994, the Guptas arrived in a brutalised country and understood that if all they ever did was buy the middlemen – politically connected brokers who shunted deals between the governing party and the SOEs – they would gate-keep multimillion (dare to dream: multibillion) rand contracts, benefiting from every last contract and/or kickbacks on the way to Bollywood-style riches.

This is exactly how things turned out. If they have a primary skill, the Guptas, it’s their ability to sniff out weakness. In Duduzane Zuma, they found a young man who had suffered through immense familial tragedy and groomed him as the ultimate intermediary – a fleet of luxury cars, a holiday or two, a couple of fancy properties, and they had bought themselves into the First Family.

All of this, however, is premised on the Guptas’ fundamental belief in the system. They grasped that the moving parts of a modern capitalist democracy would a) both ignore and enable their plundering and b) react far too slowly when that plundering was brought to light. Their prescience was faultless. Because of the South African Constitution’s fundamental weakness, which invests far too much power in the executive, Jacob Zuma and his allies in cabinet and other critical positions (mostly in the security cluster) were able to stuff SOE boards with mouth breathers and lackeys, while stonewalling any meaningful inquiries into the extent of government-backed corruption.

But there were other actors upon which the Guptas relied for largesse, and these include the legal, banking, and consultancy establishments – their PR firm would refer to this crew as White Monopoly Capitalists. It is fair to say that big-brand auditing firms like KPMG don’t act as an essential self-regulatory stopgap, but rather as expensive cover-fire for large-scale perfidy. Somehow, the Guptas’ bagman lawyer, Gert van der Merwe, has never been struck from the rolls, even though he currently finds himself in a universe of trouble (more on that in a moment). The big banks only last year summed up the requisite queasiness to unbank the Guptas, despite almost a decade of stench wafting up from their lair in Saxonwold. Forget that FICA bullshit: it wasn’t the Guptas’ financial activity per se, but rather Zuma’s brazen attempts to capture the National Treasury, that forced their hand. These same institutions, quiet for so long, then had the temerity to back initiatives like SaveSA, a big tent circus committed to bringing down the very actors the corporate sector had underwritten with cheap credit and favourable terms in the first place.

That the Guptas were so easily able to laser through the carapace of the state’s regulatory institutions says almost nothing about the Guptas and everything about the state.

This was a place built to plunder.

***

And yet, here we are, on a Wednesday morning, midway through a week of considerable political bloodletting. Let’s take quick stock of the corpses.

There’s Hlaudi Motsoeneng – a performance artist so dangerously entertaining that the SABC could have doubled ratings by dispensing with all other programming and just have him mumble into a tin can. He has now been permanently dislodged from the state broadcaster due to the considerable focus and diligence of the Ad Hoc Committee into the SABC Board Inquiry. There’s former Eskom board chair, Dr Ben Ngubane, who makes a number of cameo appearances in the Gupta emails, and who last night scuttled away from the power utility in a seeming effort to save his skin. Best of luck with that, Ben: “It cannot be correct that board members chose to resign when they are to be held accountable for their actions and decisions in our State-Owned Enterprises,” said the ANC, in a statement released on Tuesday. “This sudden resignation must, therefore, be followed by an investigation into allegations of misconduct and corruption at Eskom.” It should be noted that Ngubane’s fall is due in no small part to the relentless haranguing of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises.

Last, but by no means least, there’s the effortlessly sleazy Gert van der Merwe, the Guptas’ legal representative. EWN broke a story detailing his efforts to secure himself indemnity in a R16-million fraud and corruption trial. In maybe the line of the whole smegma-drenched Gupta affair, Van der Merwe apparently claimed that he “wasn’t even sure which client I was accused of laundering money for”.

Put that on a T-shirt.

Astonishingly, here’s what even our own semi-functional democracy provides: the ability for the expression of a collective will, a collective ability to say enough, regardless of how cacophonous the disunity may be. In a dictatorship – the kind of system Zuma has on numerous occasions publicly dreamt of administrating – a large(r) number of us would be dead. And so too would be the Guptas. Dictators don’t need middlemen, and nor do they need a polity. In South Africa, Zuma requires at least the veneer of a democracy in order to keep the machine running.

Turns out even the veneer can be enough of a weapon, at least when wielded appropriately:

  • Brian Molefe, disgraced two-time Eskom CEO and prominent Gupta errand boy: gone.
  • Major-General Mthandazo “Berning” Ntlemeza, the most recent captured ingrate to run the Hawks: gone.
  • Lieutenant-General Khomotso Phahlane, the acting national police commissioner engaged in a war with the independent police watchdog, Ipid: gone.
  • Bell Pottinger, the London-based PR firm that helped the Zuptas build a coherent universe in which they presented themselves as victims: they’ll need their own PR firm to recover from this.
  • Malusi Gigaba, the miracle finance minister who has fluttered his way through major Cabinet appointments, and while at Home Affairs “legally” fast-tracked the Guptas naturalisation certificates: on the ropes.

By the time the last of the Gupta emails have been sifted through, there will be enough investigative material to furnish the Thuli Madonsela-mandated judicial commission of inquiry into state capture – which will happen at some point in the future – with everything it requires to successfully rule on the matter. Indeed, the whole current Zupta meltdown is a result of the immense pressure that has been brought to bear on the syndicate from the media, the opposition parties, the still functioning elements of Parliament, the judiciary – you go, judges! – and from within the ANC itself. The latter point is most pathetically illustrated by a plea issued to Zuma by Ekurhuleni’s useless Mayor Mzwandile Masina, who bleated at last weekend’s Umkhonto We Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) conference, “Comrade President, let’s ask the Guptas to give the ANC the space to conduct the revolution.”

What a moment this was. The silence among the veterans was tomb-like; the president stared at his drishti point, the special swirl in space/time where he and Putin and Trump and the rest of politics’ postmodern mini-monsters gather to confer on matters pertaining to their respective offices.

We don’t mean to choose friends for leaders of the ANC,” continued Masina, “but there is a limit for everything. People died in the ANC and for this country. We can’t surrender the sovereignty of this country and the ANC in this process.”

Combine this with the incredible, epic silence of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s ANC presidential campaign, notwithstanding the efforts of the ANC Youth League, the Women’s League, and the MKMVA to relentlessly endorse her candidacy, and the signal to noise ratio starts to tip dangerously in favour of “fuck this shit”.

Of course, it is not all good news. Many, many bad guys still find themselves in powerful positions – all people, Bathabile Dlamini is still gainfully employed. The corruption extends right through our country and is best exemplified, perhaps, by the 450 or so political killings that have occurred since Zuma took to the throne. We are thrice downgraded and twice junked. Nearly 40% of South Africans who want to work, can’t. We are world leaders in income inequality, racial discord, and illegal financial outflows. But there is also the wholesale slaughter of women in shacks in RDP houses, in middle-class subdivisions and upper-crust palaces – it hardly matters where, because the twisted understanding of power in the country has stripped our society of anything resembling a compass. Instead, we find untrue north by the means of guns, knives, hammers, bats – and we never, ever seem to find the courage to punch up. We only ever punch down.

Two weeks into South Africa’s version of the Panama Papers – the Saxonwold Sheafs? – and life is much the same as it ever was, even if a few bad people have taken a dive. Our manifold complexities are going nowhere. But at least, by parsing the leaks, we offer an answer to the Oracle’s injunction: know thyself. We’re a country of shysters. Time for a change. DM

Photo: Antoine Wirtz – Scene from Hell (Wikimedia Commons)

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa

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