by Stef Terblanche

Can government do damage control on the Gupta scandal?

Promised report already a week late

Waterkloof Air Force base in the eye of the Gupta storm
waterkoolf twee.jpg

Two weeks after the Gupta affair, it would seem that the initial outrage by Government and the African National Congress (ANC) and its alliance partners has been replaced by damage control, deflection and even cover-up. Almost a week after the deadline government set for completion of a probe into the affair by a committee of director-generals, no report has been released.

So far no member of government has accepted any responsibility after a private aircraft with Gupta guests landed Waterkloof Air Force base.

Instead, only a number of officials allegedly involved in allowing the airplane to land at a strategic national key point have been suspended. Their major sin, it seems, has been to allow the Gupta’s well-known close relationship with President Jacob Zuma to have been used to intimidate them into believing they were doing the president’s bidding.

It also transpired that the air force officers involved did indeed follow correct and standard procedure, seemingly under questionable pressure from the Chief of State Protocol, Ambassador Bruce Koloane. Koloane has since also been suspended and seems to have become the major scapegoat in the affair.

In addition a number of off-duty police officers, who had provided a blue-light escort. were arrested.

The role of Virendra Gupta (no relation), the Indian High Commissioner, also remains largely unexplained. It appears he may have been less than honest in his application for special permission to land at Waterkloof.

Nonetheless, as has become almost customary in crises and scandals involving democratic South Africa’s third president, Zuma has remained almost completely silent throughout the affair. Yet, it was his close relationship with the Gupta family in the first place which led to the sordid affair.

When news of the affair first broke and the political heads of the various departments involved appeared to be fumbling about clueless. Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Jeff Radebe quickly took control as he had done before, as a close ally of the president, in crisis situations.

On 3 May, Radebe announced that a number of officials had been placed on "compulsory special leave" and that an investigation into the affair by the director-generals would provide South Africans with the full picture within seven days. He said the investigation “could include” probing the role played by the Guptas.

The modus operandi has been similar with each and every crisis or scandal that has hit the Zuma administration. Initial denials, questionable explanations or total silence is later replaced with slow and inconclusive internal investigations and/or parliamentary inquiries, commissions of enquiry or probes by entities such as the Public Protector.

However, these take time to complete and/or completion deadlines are pushed our so far that it fades off the immediate news agenda and public consciousness. It is a political strategy not unique to the Zuma administration and has been widely used previously, here and elsewhere.

For example, in a bizarre twist of fate, the Gupta affair must have been a kind of godsend for Zuma and his government. When the affair broke it deflected all attention away from Zuma’s poorly explained decision to deploy South African soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR), eventually leading to the deaths of 13 of them.

In the same week that opposition parties were demanding a full-scale parliamentary inquiry into the CAR incident, Guptagate erupted, pushing it into the background.

That would be an injustice to the victims of the CAR operation, as a great number of unanswered questions remain. Central are the ones about whether or not correct procedure had been followed, whether the deployment was legal in the first place, whether South Africans and Parliament had been told the truth, and what role had been played by businessmen and business interests associated with Zuma and the ANC.

Regarding the latter there seems to be a number of intertwined trails in which the same figures and businesses crop up each time, not only in respect of the CAR, but also in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where South Africa is again about to deploy its soldiers.

Another good example of how inquiries are used to in this way is the commission of inquiry into the infamous arms deal, finally announced by Zuma in 2011 after years of relentless pressure and revelations from civil society, opposition parties and others. In 2009 arms deal-related charges against Zuma himself were dropped on technical legal grounds.

The commission’s hearings were initially to start on 4 March this year but were postponed until 5 August. The commission is not expected to complete its work until well after next year’s general election. Even before starting its work, the commission has been dogged by controversy.

It was to be headed by Judge Willie Seriti assisted by two other judges, one of whom was Judge Willem van der Merwe, whose earlier acquittal of Zuma on a rape charge was met with scepticism and even criticism at the time. In December 2011 the Presidency announced his replacement with another judge.

In January this year one of the commission's senior investigators, lawyer Norman Moabi, resigned, accusing the commission it of having “a second agenda” and lacking transparency.

This was followed by media revelations in February that Judge Seriti had declared that no evidence had been produced that implicated the ANC up to that stage. According to media reports it is widely believed that the ANC and its leaders had been the main beneficiaries of corrupt arms deal transactions, which might still come to the fore when hearings finally start in August.

As with the deployment of South African soldiers in the CAR, the Gupta affair points to major failures in the policies guiding it and the management of defence and national security. And again President Zuma’s exact role is not being clarified beyond doubt.

Zuma’s only reaction to the affair thus far has been to allegedly have cancelled his attendance of the controversial Gupta wedding, saying he welcomed the probe, and warning that the probe should not harm international relations between South Africa and India.

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) unintentionally provided the Zuma government with the perfect out. First the DA called for a parliamentary inquiry; then asked the auditor-general to investigate; then turned to the Public Protector and finally insisted on a parliamentary debate.

The ANC agreed to the parliamentary debate, but refused to accede to the cardinal request that Zuma attend the debate, saying the topic was not Zuma but the use of the air force base. It accused the DA of conducting a vendetta against Zuma.

Agreeing to a debate that excludes Zuma and will only take place in June, the ANC has probably bought itself more time to come up with plausible answers, attention may be deflected away from some of the real issues, and Zuma is once again shielded from facing the music. And the chances are good some other big news events will break in the meantime, allowing public interest in the affair to die down.

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