by Piet Coetzer, Stef Terblanche

Guptagate: It can happen again

Messy scandal exposes deeper problems that scapegoating will not fix

President Jacob Zuma cannot remain silent on Guptagate indefinitely
220px-JacobZuma2.jpg

The embarrassing spectacle of the wealthy and politically connected Gupta family being allowed to land a private aircraft with wedding guests at a key South African military air force base was a political disaster waiting to happen. And, it will happen again unless some fundamental attitudes and structural changes are made to the way the affairs of state have been run for some time now.

The core of the problem was exposed in one of the torrent of statements from within the structures of the ruling African National Congress after news of the incident broke, and was underlined by a seemingly unrelated news item.

Amongst the wave of statements, ranging from an unprecedented one in his “personal capacity” by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, to justice minister Jeff Radebe, was a revealing one from the ANC Youth League National Task Team (ANCYL NTT).

Besides the fact that the ANCYL NTT, set up to clean-up the mess left by deposed ANCYL leader Julius Malema, by no stretch of the imagination has anything to do with the affair, some of its choice of words were revealing. In its call on how the matter should be handled it targets not only ANC leaders but also “deployees in government.”

This clearly illustrates the dividing lines between political party, government and what should be a professional public service have been wiped out. Senior public service officials have been reduced to mere political party 'deployees' in what can only be described as a 'cronycracy', which is what the affairs of state have been reduced to over recent years.

But that is not where it ends. The dividing lines between government, the public service and politically well connected business interests have become so blurred as to almost disappear in some instances. This unhealthy situation even led to speculation that it was such business connections that saw South Africa get militarily involved in the Central African Republic’s internal conflicts.

As again illustrated by the reaction to the Gupta affair by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the position of that organisation as part of a governing alliance is increasingly becoming untenable and destructive in the network of checks and balances needed in any healthy democracy.

It also created a situation where, in the case of the Gupta affair virtually every rule in the book could be broken in order to comply with the wishes of the Gupta family who had previously been refused special treatment at O.R. Thambo airport by at least one cabinet minister. And apparently side-stepping a number of other members of the executive and flouting national security considerations to receive unprecedented VIP treatment at a key military airport.

If it is true, as is now widely claimed by members of the cabinet and President Jacob Zuma’s office, that not a single member of the executive was involved in the whole affair, there is something very seriously wrong and flawed in the way that dat-to-day affairs of state are managed. And not only officials can be blamed, if at all, for the development of this state of affairs.

The buck in the final analysis has to stop with the head of the government, the president himself. It is unlikely that he will be able to stay silent on the matter in the longer run, despite the clearly concerted effort to isolate him form the fallout.

The nature of the problem, with some senior public servants seemingly acquiring 'untouchable' status, was again underlined by a news item not directly related to the Gupta affair. In another example of extended patronage to non-performing or ill-behaved 'deployees', it was reported that ex-government chief spokesman Jimmy Manyi, who left the presidency under a cloud, is about to be appointed to a senior position at Rand Water.

And there were earlier warnings against this situation from within ANC and government ranks. Last month we reported how deputy-president Kgalema Motlanthe, Public Service and Administration (PSA) Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, and the Minister in the Presidency who heads up national planning, Trevor Manuel, raised concerns about the state of affairs surrounding the public service. Amongst others they said:

  • The line between being a public servant and a politician should not be allowed to become blurred (Manuel);

  • The nature of the relationship between political authority and the state’s administrative arm should be clearly defined to avoid confusion of roles (Motlanthe);

  • A capable public service is required to drive social transformation (Motlanthe); and

  • There was a need for renewed motivation of public servants in order to reform the public service and build a capable state (Sisulu);

Through his close ties with the Guptas – and before that with others like the corrupt Schabir Shaik – Zuma has at the very least created the conditions for and contributed to the blurring of boundaries. For instance, according to one report Zuma frequently stopped by the Saxonwold, Johannesburg, compound of the Guptas on Mondays after attending national working committee meetings of the ruling ANC with other senior government ministers

Far more than being just about a mere witch-hunt to find the persons responsible for allowing Guptagate, the incident has exposed a number of contentious and dangerous issues for the country.

Topping the list  of course is national security and the integrity of the country’s national security and defence systems.

Also affected are issues like the very sovereignty of the state; its international relations; corruption of the line between private business, political parties, government and the state; race relations and xenophobic tendencies; abuse of state resources; arrogance and disrespect towards the country and its people by individuals suffering from massively inflated self-importance; and international respect for the country and its place in the community of nations.

Amongst other key issues exposed by Guptagate are:

  • While national security was severely compromised the question arise why the state lacked an effective and functioning system of checks and counter-checks in the granting of permission for aircraft of any kind to land and take off from air force bases;

  • Another security issue is the complete failure of South Africa’s intelligence community to detect this breach before or after the fact, to advise government about it, or even to act against it;

  • The security breach and the way in which the Gupta managed to secure the private use of state resources through their political connections and with the help of the Indian High Commission, also undermines the sovereignty of the state;

  • South Africa’s relations with India have also been drawn into the fray. Normal diplomatic procedures were not followed and Indian high commissioner in South Africa Virendra Gupta was summoned by South Africa’s International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane to explain how his mission, deputy high commissioner and military attaché became involved; and

  • An unintended consequence of many of the media reports of the affair could be the stirring up of racial or xenophobic hostility towards Indians.   

While South Africa is far from being a banana republic, as some commentators claimed, this is the kind of incident, if allowed to proliferate, eventually could turn any country into such a basket case. 

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