Forget the Guptas - at the heart of the story that stoked the country’s outrage is a problematic relationship between government and big business.
A rapid realignment is happening in our political landscape as the once all-powerful Gupta family seems to have fallen from favour.
The incident that saw a chartered jet carrying wedding guests for a Gupta family wedding was less about flouted protocol as it was about the embarrassment it held for our president, Jacob Zuma. For the first time he was seemingly in the dark about the Guptas taking liberties with official resources and protocols. Before then it suited him to let them do it, but this time it left him looking bad. So he allowed the political pack to close in on the family he once called friends and stood back, staying silent the entire time, as is often his wont.
Political winds change fast – just ask the Shaiks.
Lesser officials have been suspended in the fall-out and now certain ANC leaders are making determined noises about clearing out the rot and distancing themselves from the Gupta family.
Gwede Mantashe released a fiery statement unleashing his wrath on the Guptas in what was clearly an opportunity he had long waited for. “The African National Congress will never rest where there is any indication that all and sundry may be permitted to undermine the republic, its citizens and its borders.”
Clearly, resentment has long brewed in certain quarters of the ANC against the powerful family, who according to some, would know of Cabinet reshuffles before Cabinet themselves knew.
'Fight their influence'
The ANC Youth League national task team convenor Mzwandile Masina called for government to cut business ties with the family: “Much has been reported about this controversial family, it’s time … we unite and fight their influence.”
But the Guptas aren’t really the problem, are they?
At the heart of the story that has stoked the country’s outrage and indignation is a problematic relationship between government and big business.
Sure, this is a problem that exists the world over, from the corruption almost endemic to Indian politics itself to the infamous lobby groups in the US that sway domestic American policy. But that doesn’t make it right.
While business and politics will always intersect, the brazenly public way in which it was being done between the Guptas and our government was stomach turning.
The Guptas have Zuma’s children and wives on their boards and as their business partners. They were friends with powerful ministers and were able to pull all kinds of favours, such as the large amounts given by state-owned enterprises for the notorious business breakfasts by the Gupta-owned New Age newspaper.
The three Gupta brothers in business regularly name-drop the likes of Zuma and other politicians to smooth their way in business, according to reports.
For a long time it was common knowledge that the Guptas exercised an inordinate amount of influence over the president. On a networking trip to India in 2010, normal business people could not gain access to Zuma without the Guptas go-ahead. They acted as gatekeepers. Again, Zuma allowed this situation to prevail when it suited him.
But should the Guptas be taken out the picture other business people will rise to take their place, as happened when the Shaiks fell out of favour. The pattern is clear.
The environment is best explained by one ANC leader’s response to our newspaper.
“We need an antithesis to deal with the likes of the Gupta family,” he told our politics reporters. “At the end of these multibillion-rand strategic infrastructure projects taking place, we should be able to produce our own local bourgeoisie who will be able to influence our politics.”
And that’s the crux. The issue among the ANC is that the wrong people were bankrolling and influencing our politicians, of which the ruling party sees nothing untoward.
There is an unattributed saying that apparently does the rounds in the ANC and elsewhere that goes: “Everybody needs an Indian.”
Indian, in this sense, is shorthand for a wealthy businessperson who can make countless “donations”, as Schabir Shaik did for Zuma before he was jailed and as the Guptas are allegedly doing for Zuma’s wife Bongi Ngema-Zuma in helping her pay off her homeloan.
Those donations are then paid back in kind with easy access to government business and funding.
And that’s why I am not at all impressed with the ANC’s grandstanding on this issue. Suddenly we’re seeing heads roll, reports collated and internal investigations ordered into how protocol was so badly breached. But it’s a convenient whitewash, which in itself deals only with one symptom of a much larger issue that continues to be ignored by the ANC: their corrupt and problematic relationship with certain business people.