Beset on many sides and with the end of his second and last presidential term mercifully in sight, Jacob Zuma is looking increasingly isolated and exposed. And the weakening of his iron grip over his party is bad news for the Gupta family.
Whatever the reality of Zumaâ€™s â€œclimbdownâ€ over Nkandla this week â€“ and there is a case for treating it as a self-protective stratagem intended to pre-empt the outcome of the pending Constitutional Court case â€“ the ANC is clearly stunned and angered by it. In part, this is because it follows the presidentâ€™s humiliating somersault over the sacking of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene late last year.
Perhaps nowhere is Zumaâ€™s waning authority more visible than in the growing anti-Gupta backlash in the ANC. The climate has radically shifted since the influential family was given the use of a military airport to land wedding guests in 2013. Then the ANC reacted with discreet silence, and the official who took the rap for it was rewarded with a diplomatic posting.
Now the issue has been raised in the presidentâ€™s face by leaders of the ANC and its allies at the partyâ€™s annual
lekgotla. In an unmistakable reference to the Guptas, the partyâ€™s secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, told journalists that the strategy pow-wow heard a strong warning against the â€œcaptureâ€ of the state by private interests. Of most direct concern to the ANC is the matter of sovereignty: some ANC members have objected to the fact that the leadership no longer answers to them.
Yet our lead story today, about a sweetheart deal between arms manufacturer Denel and a Gupta company to market Denelâ€™s products in East Asia, shows that there are wider grounds for concern. As in the row over the Guptasâ€™ acquisition of Optimum Coal, there are hints that the path has been smoothed to favour them.
In the Optimum saga, Eskom was accused of â€“ and has denied â€“ strong-arming the colliery owner Glencore into selling. In the Denel matter, there are suspicions that three top executives were sidelined because they were potential obstacles to the deal.
The Denel agreement also highlights how Zumaâ€™s cronyism distorts the behaviour of officials and Cabinet members. It appears that neither Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown nor the finance ministry gave their final approval.
But Brown herself has a question to answer. In purging the Denel board last year, she left one member for â€œcontinuityâ€ â€“ Sparks Motseki, a Gupta business partner. This can be compared with the mess she bequeathed to SAA when she retained, again for continuity, Dudu Myeni and her associate Yakhe Kwinana, after shaking out the board. Both are attached to the Jacob Zuma Foundation.
Perhaps the most objectionable feature of the Denel deal is that it is unclear whether the Gupta company has much to offer other than the familyâ€™s noxious style of dealmaking. And it appears to involve the informal privatisation of a public asset â€“ Denelâ€™s intellectual property.
The Guptas symbolise Zumaâ€™s neopatrimonial style of leadership, which has done immense harm to South Africa. This holds that public resources exist not to serve the interests of the nation but those of the Big Man and his clientele.
This piece was first published as an editorial in the Mail & Guardian.
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.