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22 October 2017 08:34 (South Africa)
Opinionista NOMBONISO GASA

Corporate Capture: Mischaracterisation of the Gupta phenomenon

  • NOMBONISO GASA
    Nomboniso-Gasa(1).jpg
    NOMBONISO GASA

    Nomboniso Gasa is a researcher and analyst on Gender, Politics, Land and Cultural Issues. (Photo by Marta Garrich)

To be captured is to be taken against one’s will. Whether or not by use of force, the captured person, entity or thing is entrapped and dispossessed of power, or has his or her subjective power considerably diminished. Often, capturing is not obvious, but nevertheless treacherous. In relation to institutional power, capture may have a systemic effect.

Capture may happen from the outside, within an institution or within a set of relationships. Today, there is talk of the state being captured by the Guptas, but within the state itself it may well be that sections of the political leadership hold some role players captive. Given that they owe loyalty to or are within the power of some other person – whether a leader or an office-bearer such as the president – this may rob them of free will or prevent them from playing some roles.

Capture may be a positive phenomenon, suggesting something enjoyable and even desirable. One many be “taken” by a poem. One may surrender to the sublime rhythm of song. After seeing a cultural exhibition, one’s mood and perspective may shift for days and in some rare cases the impact of an artist may be everlasting.

One may also be captured by the powerful ideas of a particular leader. If one retains one’s subjective autonomy, that may be harmless so long as those ideas are liberating or contribute to the development of the country. That is a question that needs to be assessed on a case by case basis.

For some years now, ‘The Guptas’ have been associated with negative and extremely insidious meanings of the word “capture”. Of course, the fact that the word “Gupta” has become synonymous with tricksters who have taken control of the South African state and public institutions does not mean they have in fact seized the state either by violence or by guile.

President Zuma’s axing of Minister of Finance, Nhlanla Nene, replacing him with the unknown Des van Rooyen, without explanation, is now notorious. The public at large, including business and apparently some within the ANC, led to the reversal of Van Rooyen’s appointment and Gordhan’s eventual reappointment.

Against the above background, I took a few hours to test public opinion about the eventual reappointment of Pravin Gordhan as minister of finance. I spent three hours outside the Nicks Food Spar in King William’s Town, in the Eastern Cape, asking shoppers what they thought about Gordhan’s return.

Not a single person mentioned interference by banks or the markets. I was intrigued by the readiness with which people shared their deepest concerns and expectations of Gordhan’s leadership. Many who responded to my questions were concerned that Zuma and his Gupta friends would not allow Gordhan sufficient space to do his job.

This was fresh in my mind when I read Jeremy Cronin’s article on “Corporate Capture” (Cape Times, April 13, 2016). Writing shortly after South African banks closed the accounts of Oakbay and other Gupta-related businesses, Cronin counselled against reliance on the markets to resolve political issues. While he did not shy away from criticising “The Guptas”, he argued that corporate capture is widely practised in South Africa and worldwide.

No serious person can disagree with that. We all know the dangers of a state that is captured by corporates, by new and old money in political society. We are not so naïve as to think that the private sector in general does not have an interest in influencing the state. Cronin and others obfuscate a matter between a private entity and their bankers on the one hand, and the relationship between the private sector and the state on the other.

Cronin uses words skillfully. By focusing on the Gupta family and the broader context of “corporate capture”, he sidesteps the difficult questions of the prevailing political culture and practices in the ANC and its allies. The term “corporate capture” conceals the role of the state and the perceived or actual influence of the Guptas over President Zuma, members of the executive and South Africa’s political elite. It also conceals the effect of loyalties within the ANC and its allies, the extent to which a form of capture exists within the organisations, with the surrender of individuals and indeed organisations (SACP and Cosatu) to the whims of President Zuma, as leader of the ANC, but especially as a private beneficiary.

This raises fundamental questions about the relationship between individuals and the state, individuals and the party and between the state and the party. It is impossible for Cronin to examine these without confronting his location and that of his comrades. After all, he has been part of the project that twice put Jacob at the helm of the current ANC and the country.

Cronin’s silence on the role of elected representatives who have repeatedly used their majority in Parliament against the interests of the majority of the people in the country, who make up their primary constituency, reveals the discomfort of those located in the governing party.

What does his condemnation of the Guptas mean now, in light of his active role in shielding President Zuma in Parliament? It is no secret that those who are most affected by what he called “the recklessly brazen” action of the Gupta family and its alleged impact on the state are the poorest of the poor.

In this administration, core duties of public entities have been surrendered to the interests of a number of associates of the president – not just the Gupta family – and to servicing patronage networks in various places. The landing of the Gupta jet at Waterkloof remains a signifier of a nation held to ransom by the whims of the politically connected.

True, no one would go hungry because the Guptas landed their jet there, unlike say, as a result of the diversion of funds to Nkandla and other projects. No lives were endangered or water polluted, unlike in some mines allegedly illegally operated by the Gupta family business and their subsidiaries.

But even for those who care little for special airports and other citadels of power, it is impossible to ignore the Waterkloof incident as a symbol of brazen disregard for South African sovereignty. Waterkloof showed us the extent of the influence of the Gupta family on the executive.

A Cabinet committee was established to manage the fallout and, in reality, to absolve the executive of responsibility. SACP members were conspicuous in securing the adoption of its report.

State capture is a mischaracterisation of the problem. Elected public representatives in the governing party as well as some senior public servants have consciously chosen to surrender their subjective power, behave as oligarchs towards those beneath them, while deferring to the president and the Guptas, who have shown little regard for the Constitution and rules.

In pursuance of self-interest, they chose to undermine the mandate entrusted to them with no concern for the public. That capture was used at times to undermine accountability, and for patronage. That is why we currently have a replay of the Waterkloof response with the establishment of a Cabinet committee to engage banks and seek resolution of the Oakbay matter. This version is even more serious because it may undermine the decisions of banks and the regulatory framework of the country.

The American philosopher Cornel West puts it eloquently when he says:

We bear witness not just about our intellectual work but with ourselves, our lives. Surely, the crises of our times demand that we give our all… All the work we do, no matter how brilliant or revolutionary in thought or action, loses power and meaning if we lack integrity of being…” DM

Nomboniso Gasa is a researcher and analyst on Gender, Politics, Land and Cultural Issues.

  • NOMBONISO GASA
    Nomboniso-Gasa(1).jpg
    NOMBONISO GASA

    Nomboniso Gasa is a researcher and analyst on Gender, Politics, Land and Cultural Issues. (Photo by Marta Garrich)

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