In May 2010 during a State visit to India, when President Zuma played the global statesman ahead of the upcoming World Cup, a banquet was given for the great and the good of the sub-continental diplomatic and trade world. From the South African side, the president was accompanied by the usual mix of industrialists, BEE beneficiaries, trade delegates and motley acolytes. In a public forum, the president made clear his love for samoosas, the strong bond the two countries shared... and, not so subtly, that for the multitude of heavyweight Indian titans in the room who were thinking of investing in South Africa, the suitable way of channelling it would be through the Gupta family.
I’m not sure if there are any historical precedents for such a blatant (and downright dodgy) show of support by an administration towards politically connected businessmen, but at first it didn’t seem to have the required effect. Several top Indian industrialists left in disgust. At the time, it was perhaps not surprising. After all, few of them would have heard of the Gupta family or thought of them as major players. Before arriving in South Africa, they had been a middleweight family in the power stakes on the subcontinent. Those in the know used to scoff at them for having embellished their credentials through a clever sleight of hand, by naming their companies outside India “Sahara”- thereby trading off the powerful (and unconnected) brand name of the famous billionaire Subrata Roy’s Sahara Group. Rumours, never proven (but then few such things ever are in Indian courts) swirled around of them providing money laundering facilities in Dubai. Good stuff, as far as dodginess goes, but relatively small potatoes in India’s high octane world of corruption. Yet now, it seemed, they were about to be seriously made. Having the direct imprimatur of a President of a G-20 country was an impressive – and lucrative – thing indeed.
For some reason, the South African media didn’t pick up on the statements made during the state visit – perhaps they were preoccupied with the other, major scandal of the tour. Remember it? Perhaps not, after all these years. Our president had to leave India early to deal with the embarrassing speculation that he had been cheated on by one of his wives with his bodyguard. The bodyguard had subsequently committed suicide and the Second Lady was now pregnant.
It’s funny how such scandals fade into our collective oblivion after a few months – but only because they’re always replaced by new ones. Ah, for those heady few days in May, before Nkandla-gate, or Petro-gate, or Limpopo textbook-gate, when all we had to worry about were the amorous goings on of the Presidental Bed. We could console ourselves that the looming plague of the Guptas was for another day.
I was reminded of these two incidents this week because whether we like it or not, the plague of the Guptas has struck, and as everyone within the ANC and the alliance now belatedly admits, this plague has been with us for quite a while. Those Indian businessmen who once snorted at the Guptas in 2010 now probably pay obeisance. Certainly our state organs, judging by the actions of the last week, pay obeisance. Without fully realising it, our whole country has sleepwalked into being enslaved into obeisance. For despite the questions being asked only in the past week as to why civilians were able to get flying squad and blue light escorts, I’ve been present at several functions dating back to 2009 in which the Guptas received these same escorts. Notwithstanding the recent questions about the Guptas and landing rights, I’ve previously seen the Sahara helicopter land with impunity in Zoo Lake near their compound, despite the flouting of all manner of municipal and security laws.
There are of course so many worrying things about this new power elite, which has already attracted many inches of column width over the past few days. But for me the worrying thing was not only about the plane landing at Waterkloof, or how it was allowed there. It was also about how so many of our Cabinet ministers seemingly saw no conflict in being so publicly associated with the Guptas – at a time when evidence of them holding incredible sway over the Cabinet and the Administration had become increasingly obvious. What was a member of the SACP like Minister Rob Davies (supposedly bent on achieving a “national democratic revolution”) doing cavorting with the family behind Imperial Crown Trading (whose venal brand of capitalism is seemingly bent on achieving exactly the opposite), other than hoping to soak up some of the patronage which would come his way? What was Malusi Gigaba doing there, so soon after the Sunday Times’ expose that one of his temporary appointments at SAA was the victim of an attempted bribe by Tony Gupta? We can suspend our disbelief when it comes to the attendance of former Mbeki henchman Essop Pahad (“I’m just here to enjoy myself”) because he is now effectively in the employ of the Guptas, who bankroll his magazine. But my heart really sank when I heard that Naledi Pandor, one of the more cerebral minds in an otherwise lacklustre Cabinet, had also attended. “It’s only a wedding,” she was purported to have said.
Actually, Minister Pandor, it is not. For the sake of your country and your Administration’s stated aim of fighting corruption, it is much more than that.
Some say history repeats itself; others say not. The South African optimist in me hopes that in our case, it just might. In 1971, while his country groaned and burned under the weight of poverty and oppression, the decadent last Shah of Iran celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. Next to the ancient ruins of Persopolis, he ordered $100m spent to create a tent city of 160 acres. Dancers were flown in from the great capitals of the world. Now, Persepolis lies very close to mud-hut villages of squalor and misery, but the specially flown in guests would hardly have noticed – or cared – as they sipped champagne in Barracat crystal and dipped into beluga caviar. Along with the Shah, many were beneficiaries of the country’s massive oil wealth, and they basked in his patronage. As his guests bowed and grovelled and toasted to the next 2,500 years, it would have been easy for the Shah to believe them, and to drown out the growing voices of discontent from his ears. But before the decade was out, in 1979, he was overthrown. As much as the optimist in me hopes the same for the family who have now proven themselves to be the real power centre in South Africa, the cynic in me says, “But do we have to wait for close on a decade before it happens?” DM
Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab