From the sunny balconies of middle-class suburbia to the dusty street township corners, South Africans have a new obsession – and it was made in India.
They’re called the Guptas, immigrants from a down-at-heel town north of Delhi who have reached the apex of the country’s business world, and the centre of its politics. A Gupta TV channel, a Gupta newspaper, Gupta coal mines, Gupta-sponsored cricket stadiums – the family’s footprint extends far and wide.
Now, as many South Africans ask whether they also have a Gupta-sponsored presidency, the controversy surrounding the family and its links to President Jacob Zuma appears to have contributed to the worst ever result for the African National Congress (ANC) in this month’s municipal elections. The vote saw Africa’s oldest political party win just 54 per cent of the vote, down eight percentage points from 2011, and culminated in an event once thought impossible – an opposition member becoming mayor of Johannesburg.
No less significant was the loss of Tshwane (formerly Pretoria), the executive seat of government where the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) won the most votes, for the first time ever. The shock was compounded by the loss of Nelson Mandela Bay (formerly Port Elizabeth), once an ANC stronghold, and Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal province, where Zuma built his infamous 255 million rand
(US$18.7 million) private homestead. As one commentator wryly observed, Zuma now lives, works and shops in opposition-led South Africa.
“Perceptions of President Jacob Zuma and his cronies as corrupt were a major ball and chain for the ruling party and contributed to the collapse of support in major urban areas in South Africa,” says David Maynier, who heads the DA’s finance portfolio. “It was clear voters believe they do not have jobs because of high levels of corruption in the allocation of short-term public works opportunities.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many commentators, who see Zuma’s system of patronage as dystopian. Richard Pithouse, a senior researcher at the Unit for Humanities at Rhodes University, says the ANC’s poor election shows corruption is not merely an ‘elite’ preoccupation.
“What [the Guptas] represent to me – and to many people – is the extraordinarily brazen way in which Zuma has used the state to advance his own interests and the interests of his political connections at the expense of any kind of social project,” Pithouse says.
Some critics even suggest Zuma’s actions are turning South Africa back into a pariah state. That such allegations should emerge, just 22 years after the last apartheid state president cleared his desk, is surprising; that it should involve a family that did not arrive until after apartheid was largely dead and buried is even more so.
One suspects the rise and fall of brand Gupta comes as a surprise to the Guptas themselves, who are understood to have arrived in South Africa shortly before the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 to pursue the expected flood of new business opportunities.
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Brothers Ajay and Atul were first to arrive, followed later by another brother, Rajesh.
Their father was reportedly a pious and hard-working man, respected within his community. By comparison, his sons are mostly regarded with suspicion, particularly by journalists grown cynical amid extreme income disparity, who jokingly refer to the Gupta’s walled Johannesburg compound as the unofficial seat of government.
The case against the Guptas has focused on perceived sweetheart business deals related to their mining interests, or administrative favours. There was an outcry over mines operating without the necessary water use licences; big questions over a massive contract to supply the state power utility with coal; and public consternation over permission granted to land a large party of wedding guests at a military air force base. Until recently, a key figure in the Gupta hierarchy was President Zuma’s son, Duduzane Zuma.
Julius Malema, firebrand ‘commander-in-chief’ of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a three-year-old political party that won eight per cent of this month’s poll, has been particularly hostile towards the Guptas.
Malema and his fellow EFF members of parliament, who wear red overalls and mining hats to work as a show of working class solidarity, are often heard chanting ‘Zupta [Zuma and Gupta] Must Fall!’ in parliament before being carried out by the marshals.
Malema has also raised eyebrows by claiming Zuma transported 6 billion rand of ‘Gupta money’ to the UAE during a recent business trip – a claim dismissed as “preposterous and malicious” by the president’s office.
But if these controversies hurt the ‘Zupta’ alliance, the knock-out blow was the claim by deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas that the Guptas – and not Zuma – had offered him a cabinet position. Coming just a few months before the August poll, the claim was like a political atom bomb and prompted an investigation.
While the Guptas are relative newcomers to mud-slinging political limelight, Zuma has weathered worse , including accusations of corrupt arms deals and rape. It is a source of much national teeth-gnashing that, even as Zuma weathers one controversy after the next, the police’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) appears more concerned with investigating people who stand in Zuma’s way. This week it emerged that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, considered a voice of fiscal reason within government, was being investigated by the Hawks for alleged corruption related to the retirement package of a former colleague. The EFF said the move should be viewed within the context of “the unrelenting pursuit of criminalising the Minister of Finance by factions of the ANC who are seemingly gunning for the treasury under the instruction of the Gupta family”.
But some feel the furore around the Guptas is a continuation of South Africa’s obsession with race. The Guptas would not be the first high-profile Indians to endure bigotry of this kind. Anti-Indian remarks have surfaced periodically, including from within the ANC, targeting a community that nurtured many stalwarts of the anti-apartheid struggle in the land where Mahatma Gandhi began his journey against colonialism.
There are also those who claim the Gupta obsession is little more than jealousy because of the family’s remarkable rise from modest beginnings.
But if this month’s poll was a barometer of public sentiment regarding Zuma and his inner circle, Guptas included, then public patience is clearly wearing thin. “Should the decision be made to persevere with Zuma as ANC leader, the electorate will second guess that decision in the 2019 general elections,” concludes Paul Hoffman, director of social justice lobby group Accountability Now.
Bobby Jordan is a senior reporter for The Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa