The president who tossed away the rule book

Ajay and Atul Gupta, with Duduzane Zuma. (Muntu Vilakazi, Gallo)

Ajay and Atul Gupta, with Duduzane Zuma. (Muntu Vilakazi, Gallo)


‘Zuma is going for scorched earth,” an ANC veteran told me this week. “[Stopping him] is a fight to save the country.” He was referring to the ANC national executive committee meeting this weekend, which is expected to discuss President Jacob Zuma’s relationship with the Gupta family, and their alleged influence over the state. This affair has burst into the open following the public allegation by Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas that they offered him the finance minister’s job before Nhlanhla Nene was sacked last year.

But the veteran was also speaking more widely, about Zuma’s determination to refashion the state in his own interests – in his own image, almost – no matter the cost to the democratic project of law, rationality, modernity and development.

Someone who knows the Gupta family well says they stepped in to support Zuma when he was down: when he was let go as deputy president by Thabo Mbeki in 2005 over allegations he enjoyed a corrupt relationship with Schabir Shaik.

Since then, Zuma has grown especially close to the eldest Gupta brother, Ajay. What Zuma shares with the Indian family, says the source, is a bitter determination to demonstrate mastery over their humble rural roots – a determination that includes “sticking it” to the urban elites who look down on them, as well as a ruthless ambition in executing their own advancement.

If we consider the (disputed) claims made by former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor, that Zuma sat in the next room at the Guptas’ Saxonwold compound while she was allegedly offered the position of public enterprises minister, they are familiar.

Similar Zuma endorsements, tacit or open, were a feature of the evidence of his modus operandi aired at the Shaik trial, whether it was his pitching up to support Shaik’s efforts to grab a slice of Durban’s Point Waterfront development or travelling to London to reassure Shaik’s French arms deal partners.

The question that arose after the Shaik judgment detailing his “mutually beneficial symbiosis” with Zuma was: Just who was really using who? The answer couldn’t be clearer now.

Zuma has donned the cloak of legal authority, but it is merely a disguise

As Shaik languishes in a legal limbo, the threat of reincarceration keeping him on a short leash, his erstwhile beneficiary has systematically conquered a huge swath of the state by installing a small army of people who owe him ultimate loyalty in a manner that is much closer to feudal fealty than constitutional obligation.

In doing so, Zuma has donned the cloak of legal authority, but it is merely a disguise for the informal and direct exercise of power and patronage. In adopting this disguise, Zuma has been abetted at almost every turn by the ANC, which has been wont to criticise the opposition for “lawfare” – for supposedly using the courts to try to frustrate legitimate executive authority.

It is Zuma, and his lieutenants in the Hawks and National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), who have practised “lawfare” to keep at bay the rule-of-law checks and balances without which the Constitution is simply a piece of paper.

Zuma owes his accession to the presidency to the “Stalingrad” approach of his lawyers, which has kept accountability at bay – not only in the case of the corruption charges against him, but also with regard to the Democratic Alliance’s attempts to review the NPA’s decision to withdraw the charges.

It has also been evident in his removal of those who no longer serve at his pleasure, such as ex-prosecutions boss Mxolisi Nxasana and former police commissioners Bheki Cele and Riah Phiyega.

Those who have threatened him – such as Nxasana, former Hawks commander Anwa Dramat, suspended Independent Police Investigative Directorate boss Robert McBride and former acting South African Revenue Service (Sars) commissioner Ivan Pillay – have been replaced or forced out, without regard for legality or the necessary independence of the institutions they headed.

Zuma operates outside the rules, holding counsels of state – such as with Nxasana – without minutes or formal records, and meeting ministers, businesspeople, con men, spooks and supplicants in informal settings where the exchanges are always deniable.

Using the cloak of presidential prerogative he has created a Cabinet bloated by patronage – and he has extended his control of ministries and state-owned enterprises with the appointment of a staggering coterie of junior or politically dependent officials and directors: in Eskom, in Transnet, in Denel, at SAA, at the SABC, at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa.


In this enterprise, the Gupta family has been Zuma’s tool and ally, using the fiction of Duduzani Zuma’s profile as an “independent businessman” to elide the obvious perception that he is his father’s proxy.

So the Guptas are a problem, but they are not the problem. Like Shaik, who called in vain for Zuma to testify at his trial, they may be thrown to the wolves to allow the ANC to save face – though their intense proximity to Zuma has probably delivered better political insurance than Schabir could muster.

But Zuma shows no sign of backing off his objective. When the markets crashed and the ANC baulked at the capture of the treasury, almost the last bastion of evidence-based decision-making in the government, Zuma did not give up. He has allegedly confided to advisers that he still wants Des van Rooyen in the finance minister post – and the obedient dogs at the Hawks and at Sars are still baying for Pravin Gordhan’s blood.

In the meantime, Zuma may hem in Gordhan and neutralise Jonas by “promoting” him to another post and replacing him with someone who will not be Gordhan’s ally.

The new deputy minister will, of course, take over the keys to the Public Investment Corporation – the piggy bank needed to fund a raft of projects, from nuclear to coal – and will also be given the task of managing Sars, because Gordhan is conflicted, obviously.

Zuma wants a legacy. He wants to shift the balance of power to his family and his allies, whether they are in business or in traditional leadership structures. The question is: How much of the democratic project will be left if he succeeds?

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See for our stories, activities and funding sources.


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