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In the Ruins of the House of Zupta


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

The largely unspoken trump card in the turn against Zuma was the inconvenient but incontrovertible truth that Zuma’s ongoing presence in leading government would in all probability lose the 2019 elections for the ANC.

The House of Zupta is in ruins. Two of its last vestiges tumbled this week. As Jacob Zuma was forced into resignation from the Presidency of South Africa, the Brothers Gupta and a host of associates were arrested, charged and brought before court.

The events brought to an end an unprecedented and embarrassing era in South African politics. Even as questions remain about exactly how pristine the new holders of political power in South Africa are, it is a certainty: the House of Zupta has fallen.

Nothing about the cracking and crumbling of the Zupta edifice was easy, fast or guaranteed.

It was to have been the heart of a kingdom that would prosper off the riches of the South African state. The Zuptas inhabited this house with abandon. Jacob Z constructed an elaborate safety net to cover the network’s operations of siphoning state funds into private coffers, linked directly and indirectly to the joint Gupta-Zuma political dynasty. Zuma ensured that core investigative and prosecutorial institutions were infiltrated – their task was to forestall and stall complaints, investigations and charges. To back this up, endless streams of public funds provided access to expert legal representation.

Zuma’s construction of his bastion of hijacked state funds started early, taking shape in his first term in office (2009-2014), flourished and then spun out of control from as early as 2012. By the time of the ANC’s 2012 Mangaung conference the Guptas knew the result of the ANC elections well in advance of any formalisation. The Guptas aided Zuma in every aspect of the project, including in guiding the appointment of puppet Cabinet ministers who would service the grand Zupta project of pilfering and banal enrichment in exchange for sidekicks’ small-fry benefits such as trips to Dubai.

The Zupta alliance, extending deep into the South African state, had become brazen. All their actions signalled that they knew they had the power. It was a parallel system of government.

They controlled the king of the castle, who, in the arguments of Ronnie Kasrils, was an expert seeking out potential benefactors to help him realise the life that he thought he was entitled to. In the Guptas, Zuma had found the perfect match. Of course, the Zuma clan’s pursuit of riches was not limited to tapping into the Gupta networks exclusively. There were (or are) other families too, besides multiple underworld links that have surfaced.

This kingdom of political and financial extravagance was supposed to have lasted forever; Zuma’s ANC – a faction that was cultivated into political dominance – was supposed to have endured until “Jesus comes again”.

The cracks widened, most tangibly in December 2015 when Zuma plunged into the replacement of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene with Des van Rooyen, all on the Guptas’ instigation if not prescription. The landscape started changing and a story unfolded of growing public scrutiny, investigative journalists’ relentless pursuit of leads and then, the #GuptaLeaks. The tide was changing, even if for the time being the activities of pilferage and looting with the Zuptas as beneficiaries continued.

Further turning points that helped destroy the House of Zupta included Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report and the Constitutional Court’s “breach of the Constitution” ruling on Zuma and his Nkandla bastion. Opposition parties’ and civic organisations’ use of the courts of South Africa to force accountability, which the factional Zumaist ANC could not muster, helped to consolidate the gains. Next, structures in the ANC started dissenting, foremost among them the veterans. Gradually, ANC members and branches also started rebelling across provinces beyond the Premier League and KwaZulu-Natal.

A Cyril Ramaphosa team had started working on building an intra-ANC defeat-Zuma alliance soon after Ramaphosa’s serendipitous ascension into the ANC deputy presidency in 2012. Kgalema Motlanthe stood on the verge of defeat in the ANC presidential race and refused to enter as a compromise deputy presidential candidate on the Zuma slate. As contentious and complicit in many respects as this Ramaphosa move was (and will remain for the foreseeable future), he accepted the ANC and South African deputy presidencies. This was the beachhead to defeat the Zupta regime.

The House of Zupta had become entrenched so firmly that defeat appeared close to impossible. Zuma had envisaged it as the empire on which the sun would never set. The Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma candidacy for the ANC’s Nasrec 2017 elections was supposed to be the warrantee of never-ending control. To win power, the Ramaphosa alliance would need the support of many of the Zumaists. Compromise with the compromised became one of the rules of the game to collapse pillars of Zuptaism.

Foundations started collapsing under the “weight” of the slim 179-vote majority in the Nasrec presidential elections. This was the turning point that might so easily not have materialised. There was the over-confidence that made a substantive batch of North West and Free State branches and regions overstep the boundaries of legitimate conference preparations. Court rulings disqualified these delegates from Nasrec participation. A 3,000-strong NDZ caucus meeting as Nasrec took off made the NDZ disciples believe that they could sacrifice the contested branches; these were “a drop in the ocean”, they argued. Even more, victory was certain, they prophesised. The DD Mabuza-Mpumalanga “unity” ticket might have helped, to some unknown extent, but might not even have been definitive.

Despite this milestone of Ramaphosa’s Nasrec victory, the House of Zupta was standing. The Zumaists reckoned they could still safeguard power until 2019. It would, they thought, give enough time to secure the family silver of nuclear deals, and milking the economy generally through the last of the acolytes in state-owned entities and sycophantic deployees in state departments.

Yet, power shifted phenomenally in the six weeks from early January to mid-February 2018, reaching a crescendo in the 10 days from 4 to 14 February.

One after the other the ANC’s internal structures first shifted tentatively in favour of Ramaphosa. Next the shifts became definitive. Zumaist support in the National Executive Committee (NEC) grew markedly as he emerged as the successor-in-rapid-making. The Ramaphosa side gained a sufficient majority in the National Working Committee (NWC) to make it clear that there was no going back to the Zuma order. The ANC parliamentary caucus (generally taking its lead from the NEC) was confirmed as up to 80% pro-Ramaphosa. That meant that they would be able and prepared to carry out a motion of no confidence. The days of August 2017 with its narrow parliamentary defeat of an anti-Zuma motion were over.

A final Zupta pillar was pulled down under the threat from opposition parties plus the ANC to bring on such a motion of no confidence in Parliament, or impeachment proceedings once those rules would be in place by mid-March (as per the Constitutional Court instruction of late 2017). Zuma was being smoked out of his lair. He had nowhere to go … Neither had his Gupta associates.

Under the new political umbrella of anti-corruption action, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and Hawks found their previously immobilised feet. Action started. Ramaphosa had gained traction through his Davos World Economic Forum visit. He returned later in January with the message that the precondition for investment was decisive action on corruption. The Guptas, with their Vrede-Estina dairy as laundering veil for personal gain and glorious wedding parties, were trapped.

The rug of power was pulled further from underneath Zuma’s feat when the half-new ANC postponed the State of the Nation address, so that Zuma would not be the messenger of ANC government plans in a pre-election year. The eclipse of Zuma’s state power was extended when he was deprived of power to conduct his own Cabinet meetings. He agreed to effective co-governance with Ramaphosa; his every move was watched.

The largely unspoken trump card in the turn against Zuma was the inconvenient but incontrovertible truth (proven in multiple, credible public opinion polls) that Zuma’s ongoing presence in leading government would in all probability lose the 2019 elections for the ANC. Even Zuma acknowledged this indirectly in his yelps of victimhood. The circle closed when Zuma was forced into resignation on 14 February, and Ramaphosa took the oath of presidential office a mere 16 hours later.

Among the ruins of the House of Zupta stands a lonely former president, crying: What are the reasons? What have I done? DM


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