Opinionista Stephen Grootes 27 May 2013

Guptagate: Crossing the line, setting the precedent

As the radioactive dust settles on the twisted toxic mess that is the Gupta Waterkloof Scandal, it's time to consider what we've learnt as a country over the few weeks of May 2013. It's not so much about the lessons that can be learnt, but about what the entire mess has taught us about limits, and about how our country really operates. It's about what really motivates our politicians, and as a result, it demonstrates what they're really scared of.

The GuptaGate appears to have a half-life of a serious scandal. It’s simply gone on and on and the end is still not on the horizon, no matter how much the ANC-led government and the No 1 would have wished it to just go away. While at the beginning of the year it appeared the Scandal of 2013 Award would go Nkandla-side, it’s been completely dwarfed by this particular noxious cloud.

Time and time again, we understand that when it comes to scandals in politics, timing matters, a lot. To an extent, this scandal stood on the shoulder of other scandals; it took things to the next level: it was something so unexpected, so outrageous, so obviously incriminating of President Jacob Zuma himself, that it was hard to run away from.

From a political, rather than a moral point of view, Nkandla was directly on the line. It could be claimed, for the constituency the ANC serves, that it was about national security and corrupt bungling officials.

GuptaGate then goes to a much more interesting place. Up until this point, particularly during the Nkandla scandal, and the claim that it was a National Key Point (how could we know, really, considering the list of key points is secret, unconstitutionally so?), parts of the ANC had behaved as if there were no limits on their actions. Want government to pay for your R200m house? No problem. Want to be followed to New York by not one but two planes? Sure, whatever. Want to appoint someone supremely unqualified as National Police Commissioner? So long as you’re happy, Number One.

The main point to this scandal was that for perhaps the first time, ANC leaders and perhaps even Zuma himself realised that even they have limits. Even for them, in a country that is suffering badly from the scandal fatigue, this went too far. Even the people of South Africa, who became so de-sensitised to the ruling party leaders’ plumbing new depths with a demoralising regularity, this was a bridge too far.

GuptaGate was simply too clear, too obviously corrupt at the highest level, that it could not be explained away, or just sat out, waiting for a new scandal to relegate the prospect of SA being a banana republic to graveyard of forgotten outrage.

But this is where it quickly became apparent that the limits of South Africa’s patience had been crossed. While I still believe most people have the same view of No 1 as they did during the 2009 elections, the waverers, the urban black middle class vote, the one we’re all watching next year are not pleased.

It’s funny, normally when some scandal erupts around No 1, you have the sound and fury of the ANC’s defence, accompanied by at least some callers to radio stations and letter writers to newspapers, and comments on websites, defending him. To my mind, that’s been curiously absent this time around. And the fury of the ANC’s defence of him in Parliament the other day was less ferocious than it normally is. Quite frankly, you have to wonder what Naledi Pandor thought, having to defend No 1 for the ANC. She might have been forgiving for thinking, “How the hell did it comes to this?”

It seems that the person who first realised this line had been crossed was old Super-Glue himself (which is our new name for Gwede Mantashe, after Itumuleng Nkoane won our “rugby nickname for Mantashe contest”…..he holds the ANC together and S-G, geddit?). Mantashe was the person who released a statement on behalf of the ANC condemning the landing, and calling for an investigation by government.

There is one fundamental question that, if we know the answer, will tell us so much. Did Mantashe release this statement after consulting with No 1? It’s a key point (one we’re allowed to know, but unlikely to ever find out). If he did, then clearly No 1 was as furious with the Guptas as everyone else (but perhaps for different reasons).

If Mantashe did not consult No 1, was he acting because he felt the need to protect him from the Guptas (anyone remember Schabir Shaik?) and the ANC generally? Or was there something more complicated going on involving his predecessor in the National Union of Mineworkers (you know…that chap Cyril)?

We’ll never know the role that this is really an election year played in this decision; that does have a habit of concentrating political minds. While we’re here, the only reason everyone is in campaign mode is because the ANC has said that they are. As the elephant in the room, they’re doing a lot of campaigning among the grass-roots already. Why? It’s a still ages to go until polling day. Unless the reason they’re campaigning now, and the reason for the release of this statement are the same: someone, somewhere, has seen polling data indicating the ANC is in bigger trouble than it’s letting on.

So if the ANC, or its top leaders, realise there is now a line, and that it has been crossed, if there is now a much bigger realisation that such a line actually exists, will that change their behaviour?

In other words, is No 1 going to behave differently? This goes to the heart of the discussion around how the ANC would react to winning only 55% of the vote: would it “crack down” or improve its governance, and throw out corrupt comrades? If there is an electoral shock, how would it behave?

It’s too early to say, but we should get an indication from how the ANC and No 1 himself deal with the upcoming Nkandla investigations.

The other thing we’ve learnt from this scandal is that ANC has got much better at dealing with scandals in general. (Frequent practice makes perfect, you may say.) What Manatshe’s statement did was to allow the ANC, and therefore government, to control the story. As they like to say in this game, if you’re not on offence, you’re on defence. The fact that Mantashe not only released the statement, but ensured he was available for media interviews afterwards, shows he really wanted to ram the point home. The decision to have a snap Parliamentary Debate came from the same place. By letting everyone look forward to that, the story again was contained.

To control the story, to make sure he was heard and not anyone else, Mantashe had to be stronger, harder and louder than the ANC’s critics, which in this case would ordinarily have included Zwelinzima Vavi and parts of Cosatu. And then once certain messages had been received by people in government, they were quick to set out time-lines for their investigation.

That had the effect of putting boundaries around the story: you could get as much other information as you liked, but you still had to wait for the investigation report.

But as the release of that report showed, the problem with saying you’ll take action is that you actually do have to take action. So you have to sack someone, you have to make a finding about whether the Indian High Commissioner did ask for permission or not. In both cases, there’s risk. If you sack Bruce Koloane, he could emerge in a nice warm friendly discussion with Redi Thlabi. And of course, No 1 would not enjoy listening to that. If you keep him on, you’re ignoring your own report. And if you fire him, and then give him a nice cosy job somewhere, say Ambassador to Papua New Guinea, you still look like a moron.

Whichever option they take, the point is that a huge amount of political effort has gone into limiting the damage from this scandal. And every time the ANC spends so much time and effort defending the person on its election poster, more damage is done to the brand; the party itself is hurt. For Mantashe and co, protecting the ANC itself should be Priority No 1.

Still, it will not be easy for the ANC and No 1 to push on regardless, like they have many times before. Collective amnesia may haven been shattered. GuptaGate established the precedent, and such a powerful one, that it will be lovingly revisited by their opponents and critics for many years to come. DM

Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter, and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.

Gallery

Analysis

Fudging, obfuscation and misdirection hobble the route to the nitty-gritty of expropriation

By Marianne Merten

"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer

0