Opinionista Vashna Jagarnath 28 October 2016

Ajay Comes to Jo’burg: From selling shoes to assailing the State

Johannesburg has always been a city of migrants. Ajay Gupta’s arrival in the city in 1993 was an everyday event. It would have been impossible to imagine that 20 years later he and his brothers would be able to fly a planeload of guests from India in to a military base in Pretoria for a family wedding.

In 1993, Ajay Gupta, a young man from Saharanpur in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, arrived in Johannesburg. Uttar Pradesh is a notoriously corrupt state in which gangsters frequently double as politicians. Business is regularly conducted though the intersection of gangsterism and politics.

To contain the fallout from the acute social costs of these kinds of arrangements, a rapacious political elite, divided along caste lines, has often backed authoritarian and violent forms of far-right populism, often termed fascism. The aim is to turn the working class and poor against vulnerable minorities, especially Muslims, rather than an endemically criminal and predatory political class. Under these conditions a devastating form of hypercapitalism has been able to thrive while rational, democratic and progressive forms of solidarity, discussion and organisation have become increasingly difficult.

Ajay tells the classic story of a self-made man. His father owned a small shop and Ajay says that he started out learning to fix Apple computers. Others point to rumours, never confirmed in a court, of money laundering in Dubai, a home away from home for many of the leading figures in the Indian underworld. Before coming to South Africa Ajay had tried his luck in China but didn’t succeed. After China he came to Johannesburg.

Johannesburg has always been a city of migrants. People have come from everywhere, from the shtetls of the Ukraine, the gold rush towns of Australia and California, the Chinese provinces of Zhili and Shandong, and, more recently, cities like Lagos and Karachi. Ajay Gupta’s arrival in 1993 was an everyday event. It would have been impossible to imagine that 20 years later he and his brothers would be able to fly a planeload of guests from India in to a military base in Pretoria for a family wedding.

Weddings in India are not just about the union of two people. They are also about a union of two families and a time to demonstrate the wealth and power of the bride’s family. Vega Gupta’s wedding provided the perfect opportunity for Ajay Gupta to show off exactly how far the young man from Saharanpur had come and to demonstrate just how much prosperity and influence he had accumulated.

Besides the random Bollywood stars present, Ajay had invited several Indian and South African politicians. It was rumoured that President Zuma was at the wedding. By demonstrating the affluence and authority he had attained in South Africa Ajay hoped to begin to win a space within the Indian elite. But no amount of Bollywood glitz and glamour could cover up the sickening stench of corruption that follows this man and his family.

It has been reported that over time the Gupta brothers have effectively displaced the power of the Indian ambassadors in South Africa. It has often been claimed that they have been able to appoint ministers to the South African Cabinet. Crucial operational decisions at parastatals, like Eskom, have clearly been taken in the financial interests of the Gupta brothers rather than the national interest. This weekend it was reported that they are alleged to have offered a potential Finance Minister R600-million for access to the Treasury. Before that we learnt that the banks had finally shut down their accounts after noting a staggering R6.8-billion in suspicious transactions.

Ajay’s first venture in Johannesburg was a shoe shop in the Killarney Mall. It didn’t do well and was soon closed. But a computer company, which he named Sahara, soon began to do very well. He claimed that the company was named after his home town but many confused it with the huge Indian company Sahara India Pariwar, and many doors were opened.

It seems that from the beginning, Ajay, and then his brothers who soon joined him in Johannesburg, actively sought to make political connections. They made an early breakthrough with Essop Pahad, funding his charmless magazine The Thinker. But they found and backed their main winner when they met Jacob Zuma, then Deputy President, soon after the turn of the century.

When Zuma won the Presidency the alliance between the President and the Gupta brothers would make both the Gupta family and Zuma’s family fabulously wealthy. This wealth did not come from the kind of productive investment that creates jobs, pays taxes and lays the foundation for long-term economic development. It came from turning the state into an instrument for personal predation, predation that made two families very, very wealthy.

The alliance between the Zuma and Gupta families didn’t just make both families incredibly wealthy. They have also built significant political power with control over factions of the ANC, many of the parastatals, formerly public institutions like SABC and their own newspaper and television station.

One of the Guptas’ early attempts at giving a positive spin to their personal wealth and power began with an event held at the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban on January 9, 2011. This event was held after a Pro20 cricket match between South Africa and India. It celebrated the achievements of Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar and South African cricket great Makhaya Ntini. Bollywood, cricket and politics were choreographed into a single spectacle.

This event borrowed directly from a model long established in India where a toxic mix of politics, Bollywood and cricket has been standard practice for many years. Popular film and sport have been corrupted to produce a politics of spectacle designed to serve the interests of a reactionary and rotten political class. The Durban event bore all the hallmarks of this well-established form of political spectacle. Zuma was placed in a lineage that ran from Gandhi to Mandela and surrounded by Bollywood stars, cricket heroes and shmaltzy shots of the Guptas’ mother. The celebrity, sequins, bad lighting, lip-synching and bogus interpretations of history were aimed at wooing the audience into political narcolepsy.

Brazen disregard for the truth has recently become part of a much more ominous propaganda project. The Guptas have hired the infamous British PR firm Bell Pottinger to spin their wealth and power as a benign force. Bell Pottinger is run by the right-wing Lord Bell – who was knighted by Margaret Thatcher. He has previously worked for the Conservative Party in the UK and a range of arms dealers, dictators and repressive regimes (including the government of Saudi Arabia and Thatcher’s personal friend Augusto Pinochet), fracking companies, the American occupation of Iraq and, closer to home, the National Party, under FW de Klerk, and Oscar Pistorius. It was recently reported that the Pentagon, working with the CIA, paid Bell Pottinger $540-million to make fake terrorist videos in Iraq. They don’t work for left-wing governments.

Many people have noted the sudden plethora of fake news sites that regularly run bogus articles that support the Zuma/Gupta agenda. Justice Malala has argued that the Bell Pottinger operation is now in full swing in South Africa:

Over the past few months we have seen the launching of foundations, online publications and movements aimed at protecting President Jacob Zuma and his friends, the notorious Gupta family. Mzwanele Jimmy Manyi, who once said there is an over-supply of coloureds in the Western Cape, has launched his Decolonisation Foundation. Andile Mngxitama has launched Black First Land First, which has miraculously got enough money to place expensive adverts in Sunday newspapers defending Zuma against attack.”

The agenda is clear: to mobilise the most crude forms of nationalism with the aim of rallying popular anger behind Zuma on the grounds that he represents African interests against conspiracies by white power at home and abroad. At the same time Zuma’s critics, people like Thuli Madonsela, Pravin Gordhan and others, are presented as tools of white power.

These kinds of machinations are a well-established political strategy in India. Along with thugs, often armed, on the streets the Hindu right has an army of online trolls. Angshukanta Chakraborty has explained how Modi’s trolls make online rational and progressive engagement impossible with an avalanche of “rape threats, mutilation threats, abuses and profanities”. Secularism and left-wing ideas come under particularly vicious assault from what Chakraborty calls “a hideous feedback loop of majoritarian half-truths, a flowchart falling back into itself, trapped in a hall of distorting mirrors, feeding off imagined pasts of glory”.

Sandeep Bushan writes that the abuse is so intense that many people prefer to simply exit social media altogether rather than to try to hold out for rational engagement under a torrent of abuse. He notes that women are subject to particularly torrid attacks. Sagarika Ghose, a well known journalist, has been threatened with everything from violence against her daughter to “stripping” and “gang rape”.

The feminist academic Nivedita Menon has recently written about how the Hindu right has moved onto university campuses where it aims to achieve the “the substitution of critical thinking (indeed, of thought itself) … by slogans of the Hindu nationalist project, enshrining them violently as above any questioning”.

These tactics are not unique to India. In Russia, Vladimir Putin runs a 24-hour trolling operation in Saint Petersburg with workers paid to blog, tweet, comment and edit Wikipedia in 12-hour shifts. Putin is valorised as a heroic nationalist leader standing up against the West. People with contrary views are harassed and slandered.

In the United States, Donald Trump, another right-wing populist with authoritarian and pro-capitalist political commitments, also has an army of trolls. “Post-truth politics”, often associated with the far right and extreme forms of nationalism, is becoming the new normal. It invariably serves the interests of capital and undermines possibilities for progressive and rational forms of solidarity, discussion and organisation.

The alliance formed between Jacob Zuma and Ajay Gupta and his brothers has captured much of the movement that came to lead the struggle for liberation. It has also captured much of the democratic state. It now has its sights on our public sphere. It is a serious threat to our democracy and to our future.

During the colonial era South Africa was organised to ensure the accumulation of money in the City of London at the cost of massive black exploitation and impoverishment in South Africa. The alternative to that nightmare is not a new nightmare in which money is accumulated in Dubai while the majority of our people are subject to destitution and ruled with crude propaganda and escalating violence. The alternative to that colonial nightmare, and to the postcolonial nightmare into which Zuma and the Guptas are taking us, is a genuinely revolutionary project that will redistribute power and wealth to the majority of South Africans. DM

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