07 May 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
'Gupta' has become a verb denoting the selling of a country’s soul and patrimony to foreign bidders with deep pockets, writes Tony Leon
A FOREST’s worth of paper and gridfuls of electrons have been expended on commenting on Sun City’s version of our very own Monsoon Wedding. There is something appropriately Bollywood about the Gupta nuptials and the drama evoked in their breaching of national security, flouting of protocol and the sheer excess of the event. A comedy of errors and the symbolic shaming of a nation evoked a chorus of condemnation which, just for once, united the "usual suspects" in the opposition and media together with the paladins in the highest reaches of the governing alliance.
According to my old Collins English Dictionary, "Gupta" is a noun denoting "the dynasty ruling northern India from the early fourth to the late sixth century AD, a period of famous achievement in the fields of art, science and mathematics". However, according to the more contemporary blogosphere and Twitterverse, Gupta has become a verb denoting the selling of a country’s soul and patrimony to foreign bidders with deep pockets and close connections to the ruling family. Or perhaps a synonym for the crony capitalism embedded in the paraphernalia of black economic empowerment and the vertical nature of power — where "know who" trumps "know how" and personal enrichment is acquired through political access and greasing the wheels of political parties.
But the uncharacteristic speed and decisiveness of the government’s response to the outrage evoked by the Gupta wedding saga suggests other forces are at play.
Arguably, the arms deal scandal is of far greater weight than the unauthorised landing of one plane at an air force base; or the serial revelations concerning the communications minister and her apparent confusion between her public duties and her private relationships, not to mention her inability to manage her own office, never mind South Africa’s barely built digital highway. Yet, in the first case, the judicial commission of inquiry has become a site of internal controversy and nonperformance. In the second, the Presidency, in whose gift the appointment of ministers lies, seems unconcerned about the damage caused by a key presidential lieutenant.
None of this suggests that the intensity of the scrutiny and the response to the Gupta affair is either unwelcome or unnecessary. But perhaps Gupta has also become a byword for a growing unease about the meshing of commercial power and political influence, with a dash of xenophobia adding some spice to the mix. Then there is what the African National Congress (ANC), borrowing from the language of Stalin, called in the Mbeki era, "the national question", code for dealing with ethnic minorities in our racial mosaic.
Stephen Ellis’s masterful recent book, External Mission — The ANC in Exile, provides a compelling account of the often tortuous interplay between the Africanist forces in the ANC and the explicitly multiracial South African Communist Party, before and after the ANC opened its ranks to non-Africans. On his account, deep suspicion by ANC security chiefs of a largely Indian and derisively named "cabal" during the heyday of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the 1980s owed a great deal to the fact that the UDF in Natal "owed its strength to the Indian constituency especially".
But if some of the Gupta finger-pointing has an ethnic dimension, what of another national minority, the coloureds? Rapport newspaper on Sunday headlined a case in the Labour Court. It concerns the underpromotion of 10 coloured officers in the Department of Correctional Services in the Western Cape and revolves around the department using national rather than provincial demographics to determine its equity targets. One of the complainants, Geo-Nita Baartman, testified that not only was she both previously and severely disadvantaged but, as she put it: "I fail to understand why I sit here today … to defend myself over policies I have no control over." She was referring to the "coloured labour preference policy", which the National Party enforced in the Cape to keep Africans out of the province.
The Gupta affair provides, ironically, both a distraction from and another perspective on an intense national debate.
But there is something also rather universal about it. Last week, for example, The Economist published a searing critique of South African-style affirmative action under the headline, "Fool’s Gold". In this week’s edition, a correspondent’s pithy response was published as the "featured comment". CA-Oxonian wrote: "SA is doing a replay of the Russian game whereby a tiny number of well-connected people become fabulously wealthy through the acquisition of assets other people have created, and then entrench themselves in both the economic and political hierarchies. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again."
Another definition, perhaps, for Gupta.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA