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The ANC has some Gupta questions to answer, too

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

The African National Congress must first tell us what the Gupta family is getting out of its tight relationship with President Jacob Zuma, before getting too outraged about the fact that a national key point was apparently breached by civilians without permission.

Yesterday, the ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe issued an unusual statement: following media reports that the Gupta family had been allowed to fly in wedding guests via the Waterkloof Air Base, he demanded clarity on the matter. His concern was that a national key point* was violated.

He said: “We demand that those who are responsible for granting access to land aircraft in our country also explain the basis upon which such permission was granted, particularly to land at Waterkloof Airforce Base. Those who cannot account must be brought to book. The African National Congress will never rest where there is any indication that all and sundry may be permitted to undermine the Republic, its citizens and its borders.”

Mantashe is not alone in his search for truth, but the implicit denial of any involvement by the ANC in this brouhaha is misleading and dishonest. We have the ANC to thank for the Guptas. And this current scandal bears the marks of the kind of leverage this family is after. They got ‘permission’ to do something that they ordinarily should not be allowed to do, and now that they have been discovered, it is for the defence force, and international relations ministry to sort out.

The Gupta family released a statement saying that there was nothing untoward about the arrangement. The request apparently came from, and was obtained by, the Indian High Commission. However, when eNCA asked the defence ministry, the head of communications denied that. Siphiwe Dlamini went onto television to deny that a private charter jet was allowed to land at Waterkloof.

Then the international relations ministry issued a statement saying that permission had been given by the defence force.

Just to make sure that this matter is taken from the absurd to the farcical, the defence ministry then denied ever giving permission. In an SMS sent to an eNCA reporter, a department official said, “…the Department of Defence as well as the ministry of defence distances ourselves from a statement issued supposedly under the name of the Head of Communications in the department saying permission had been granted for an aircraft to land at Waterkloof Airforce Base. We wish to unequivocally reject this. Whoever gave such permission must take responsibility and own up to that…”

Somebody with authority (and a badge, and a corner office) gave permission for that jet to land.

This is the Zoo Lake helicopter landing, on a much larger scale. In 2010 The Star published photos and articles of helicopters belonging to a Gupta-owned company landing without ground markings or marshals at Zoo Lake, near the family’s Saxonwold compound. This was in violation of city by-laws. The letter they provided from City Parks turned out to be a forgery.

As we have known for some years now, President Jacob Zuma has a very cosy relationship with the Gupta family, to the point of blurring personal and state business on some occasions. According to the M&G, one of Zuma’s wives may be bankrolled by the family to the tune of R3.8 million.

The pay-off for the Guptas appears to be the incredible amounts that government departments spend advertising in The New Age, despite the fact that circulation figures are not audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulation of South Africa. According to Nielsen, government spend about R74,6 million advertising in the paper, which was about 60% of advertising revenue for that year. Telkom alone (39% state-owned) was responsible for a quarter of the paper’s advertising revenue alone.

“The public enterprises department is alleged to have leaned heavily on state-owned enterprises to enter into financial agreements with The New Age”, another M&G story said.

In lieu of other evidence, how can we not conclude that the Guptas are rewarded (at least in some part) for supporting Zuma through lucrative government contracts for their newspaper? The paper is being propped up using the public purse, in any case.

The ANC stood by silently as Zuma fostered relationships with the Guptas. They allowed them to get so close to the president that it publicly raised eyebrows. Its members in the national cabinet have all helped prop The New Age through the breakfast meetings that are broadcast on SABC. It’s too late to try and scratch back some credibility on this scandal by demanding to know who gave that plane permission to land at Waterkloof. It would not have happened if the family did not think they could get away with it.

When we get criticised for asking these kind of questions (I’m just waiting for a certain section of the tripartite alliance to start shouting about neo-liberal agendas) I am reminded of the times when I have been covering service delivery protests, or at Marikana, when people come running to journalists so that their stories of the disappointment and resentment of having to deal with this government can be told. The bloody cheek of some government types to accuse the critics of being unpatriotic. On the one hand, we have a political party that allows its leader to be auctioned off to the highest bidder in return for fat deals, and on the other we have a government that is unresponsive to the needs of the poorest.

This, my friends, is what a banana republic looks like.

There are many questions that need answering about the Guptas. The first one must be directed at Mantashe and the other ANC leaders at Luthuli House. Why was this allowed to happen at all? They are not the first, and we know that they are not going to be the last. Unfortunately recent history (Schabir Shaik? Remember him?) forces us to consider the ruling party guilty until proven innocent. DM

*The National Key Points Act shouldn’t even exist, but that is a debate for another day.

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