PRETORIA – The so-called Guptagate scandal that has gripped South Africa over the past month has further exposed the scale of corruption dogging the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
The story exploded at the end of April when members of the wealthy Gupta family transported 200 of their relatives and friends from India to South Africa on a privately chartered jet to attend the wedding of one of the Gupta dynasty.
The jet was mysteriously allowed to land at Waterkloof Air Force Base, in Pretoria. The entourage were given fast-track customs and immigration clearance, and then whisked away by a fleet of BMWs, accompanied by heavy security posing as police, to the gambling and holiday resort of Sun City, a few hours drive away. Along the route regular traffic had to stop to make way for the Guptas’ convoy.
Workers at Sun City later alleged that the Guptas refused to be waited on by black serving staff, a complaint being pursued by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).
The Indian-born Guptas are one of South Africa’s wealthiest families. They own the opportunistically pro-government New Age newspaper and a string of companies, and they have made hefty donations to the ruling party. They have close ties to President Jacob Zuma, and two of his sons are directors of Gupta-owned companies.
When the story hit the headlines, there was a storm of condemnation of the special treatment given to the Guptas, and their illegal use of a military air base. Who had allowed such a thing to happen? Zuma was reportedly incandescent with rage that the family had been given such special treatment.
The ANC’s alliance partners, COSATU and the South African Communist Party, lambasted the use of state resources to pamper the Guptas and their friends. The ANC leadership too decried the whole affair.
No one owned up. Government ministers who might have been involved said they knew nothing. They all blamed lesser functionaries in state protocol and foreign ministry departments, some of whom were promptly suspended.
Now a full investigation has been completed, and Parliament has debated the Gupta scandal. Zuma has been the main target of attacks over the matter by a mass media and conservative opposition that never miss an opportunity to bay for his blood. But he too has condemned as illegal the use of “name dropping” to access special privileges.
The investigation revealed that the Indian High Commission in South Africa was able to pull enough strings to allow the Guptas to use the Air Force base, bypassing government because of the tacit understanding that the Guptas had enough of a special relationship with the state to do what they liked.
It also revealed that the security and car rental companies the Guptas used are of dubious provenance, and used flashing blue lights – a police prerogative – illegally.
The affair has put a stronger spotlight on the corruption crisis in the country, particularly its patronage-driven momentum.
That no one at ministerial level knew what was going on to facilitate the Guptas’ lavish partying has hardly let the government off the hook: ignorance of events in this case being as damning as hands on complicity.
The government has been fighting both rearguard and proactive battles against corruption, trying to thwart its endemic presence while tackling its newer manifestations.
But Guptagate has blown the lid off how patronage between arrant wealth and political power can lead to a corporate elite such as the Guptas thinking it pretty cool to use South Africa as its playground – and in the process giving a blatant middle finger to the impoverished majority of South Africans.
The government has robust anti-corruption initiatives, and not a day goes by without people in power being investigated.
In South Africa, as elsewhere on the continent, corruption is inextricably linked to mass poverty. The country is one of the world’s most unequal, characterized by islands of wealth in an ocean of poverty. This in itself is a breeding ground for corruption.
The ANC commands nearly three-quarters of the vote at election time. In most communities it’s the only game in town, the sole channel for people to get work and to access local and state resources. The plethora of government tenders and grey area of insider dealing over who gets them has given rise to a whole new sub-class of the post-1994 business elite – dubbed “tenderpreneurs.”
At the same time, while corruption in the state and the public sector as a whole endlessly gets highlighted, corruption in the private sector remains rampant and practically uninvestigated. And the private sector is the constant paradigm extolled the length and breadth of civil society as worth emulating.
It is little wonder, then, that people see the public sector and its myriad facilities as an open trough to be exploited for all it is worth.
But government contrition in speedily investigating Guptagate, getting Parliament to debate it, and the general air of repugnance at the arrogance of the haughty bourgeoisie may turn out to have a positive impact on anti-corruption struggles.
Photo: Ruling party ANC president Jacob Zuma at their elective conference at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Dec. 17, 2012. Themba Hadebe/AP