“THERE are days in politics, astonishing days, when the house of cards comes tumbling down,” and Wednesday, March 16, was such a day in South Africa, says Gary van Staden, an analyst with NKC African economics.
Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas dropped a bombshell – that he was offered the top job in the department, and with it control of the National Treasury, by a group of private citizens with enough influence and proven ability to make good on the offer.
Observers are now (some times gleefully) calling it a crisis President Jacob Zuma may not recover from, arguing that the controversy confirms long-held suspicions of corruption and excessive influence in the relationship between Zuma and the Gupta family.
Zuma is the consummate political survivor, so he may yet deflect this latest crisis. But whether or not he holds on, what is even more instructive that a sovereign state – even one with as a solid state machinery, a sophisticated economy, and a credible public sector as South Africa – could even be caught up in this kind of drama in the first place.
The Guptas relocated to South Africa from India in 1993, just as apartheid was collapsing and the country was opening up to the rest of the world.
Family spokesman Haranath Ghosh told the BBC by email that their father, Shiv Kumar Gupta sent Atul to South Africa, believing that Africa was about to become the “America of the world” – the world’s land of opportunity.
‘Lack of red tape’
It is said that when Atul arrived in what was then Africa’s largest economy and he set up the family business Sahara Computers, he was “amazed at the lack of red tape compared to India.”
The family is accused of wielding enormous political influence in South Africa, with critics going as far as accusing it of trying to “capture the state” to advance its business interests.
Apparently, the Guptas have made similar offers to at least two other senior ANC officials – one of whom, Fikile Mbalula, then became Minister of Sport while the other, former ANC Member of Parliament Vytjie Mentor, said she turned down the offer by the Guptas for the post of Minister of Public Enterprises.
South Africa has long been seen as a decently run African country, and these accusations of a private family landing in the country just 20 years ago, and managing to usurp executive powers to this extent tells us that the state is not only weakening, but that South Africans’ greatest horror may be coming true – that they are becoming an “African country”.
Justice Malala, a popular political commentator and journalist in South Africa captures this horror, outrage and anxiety of what he sees as the imminent ruin of South Africa in his searing book, We Have Now Begun Our Descent.
Quoting Malala: “I am angry. I am furious. Because I never thought it would happen to us (emphasis mine). Not us, the rainbow nation that defied doomsayers and suckled and nurtured a fragile democracy into life for its children. I never thought it would happen to us, this relentless decline, the flirtation with a leap over the cliff.”
Throughout the book, Malala implicitly warns that if South Africa continues down the path it is on, the result is becoming another Zimbabwe or [insert African country here].
But perhaps it’s not such a bad thing. African states – which (perhaps inadvertently) come across in Malala’s book as collection of banana republics that you definitely do not want to become like – are often described as weak, with low institutional capacity deliberately kept so by elites, so that the political class can maximise its discretionary power and bend the state for personal gain.
That’s the place of South Africa’s worst nightmare – and with Zuma and the Guptas, it already seems to be already happening.
But there’s a silver lining – the weakness also means that you can refashion, and reorder the state with relative ease, as Magufuli’s Tanzania has shown us. It took the tough measures of a single individual – President John Pombe Magufuli – to get the whole Tanzanian public sector in line. Even if the changes are thought not to be sustainable in the long-term, it does give him some room to garner some quick wins that will be difficult to undo going forward.
Reports from Dar es Salaam indicate that Magufuli’s broom meant even rush hour traffic moving up an hour and a half, and now begins at 6am, as every civil servant with a car rushes to be in the office by 7:30am, lest Magufuli make an impromptu visit.
What is remarkable about that is how pliable African states are – the fact that they can actually respond so comprehensively to the shift in attitude projected by a one person.
In Nigeria, they called it “ the fear of Buhari” – Muhammadu Buhari had come in with the reputation of being a tough, no-nonsense disciplinarian, and within weeks of his coming to power, even before he had done anything substantial, the country was quietly getting in line.
Whether or not the changes are real, or sustainable, is a story for another day. But the fact that it is at all possible is something that should comfort South Africans: state “weakness” is often not really weakness at all. It’s malleability – which means it can be fashioned for good, or for evil.