It was with a sense of irritation that many South Africans greeted the news of the unauthorised landing at the Waterkloof air force base of a civilian aircraft carrying members of the Gupta family and their guests. One of the things this unauthorised landing reactivated are concerns about the relationship between President Jacob Zuma and the Guptas. There have been reports in the past of how some ministers have heard about announcements of national importance before such announcements were made by the president himself. In fact, it is alleged that some of the ministers were summoned to the Gupta residence. At the December 2012 national conference of the African National Congress (ANC) in Mangaung, there were reports of how members of the Gupta family would send some senior members of the ruling party on important errands such as fetching drinks for them. It is for these and other reasons that the president is on the receiving end of very demeaning perceptions about him being the obsequious party in the relationship between him and this family.
But to focus narrowly on the relationship between the president and the Guptas would be an error as egregious as the arrogance of the Gupta family, an arrogance that clearly makes them think that our country is their tuckshop. For me, the Gupta saga has activated concerns about threats to national security and our democracy which predate the landing of the Gupta UFO (Unidentified Flying Object).
To start with, I agree with businessman and political analyst, Moeletsi Mbeki, who during a discussion on the deep state on SAfm, argued that the Guptas are actually small fry in the context of the hidden economic, criminal, intelligence and political networks we were discussing. In my view, the worst thing we can do is to either exaggerate or undermine the meaning of what is now known as Guptagate. The first thing we must ask ourselves is whether the unauthorised landing of the Gupta aircraft was the first time our national security systems had failed. Who tipped the media about the landing and and why?
While our government argues that there was no executive authorisation for the landing, should we rule out the possibility that executive authority was granted informally? And, is it not possible that by not insisting on an independent investigation, our government has opened itself up to the accusation that it was not prepared to adopt an approach over whose outcome it would have no control? But what may be more important is to check whether there was an intelligence failure or whether intelligence was ignored.
That said, we must not focus narrowly on the Guptas because to do so would be to ignore the economic and political agendas of much bigger players to capture the ANC, its leaders, the state and senior government officials. And, no national security apparatus can be founded on the assumption that such agendas either do not exist or always fail. While I may be guilty of watching too many political thrillers, we must not doubt the fact that there are times when the relationship between money and politics may be configured in ways that can compromise both national security and the democratic experience of ordinary citizens.
As I have argued elsewhere, when money talks, politicians engage in policy mumbling. This means that the relationship between money and politics can distort the content of policy decisions and, therefore, the content of democratic outcomes. Because what I am trying to describe here is a phenomenon much wider than the landing of the Gupta UFO, we must concern ourselves with relationships between money and politics that go beyond the perceived friendship between the president and the Gupta family.
If I were part of this country’s intelligence structures, one of the assumptions my work would be based on is the existence of networks that seek to maximise economic advantage by capturing elements of the political space without looking for a conspiracy in every corporate boardroom. It would also be based on the assumption that transnational and domestic capital is not always the source of economic and political influence.
Intelligence networks comprising actors in private, national and international spaces, at times working in conjunction with those who have accumulated political influence through underground criminal activity, may constitute an additional dimension of threats to national security and our democracy. But most important of all, is to do this kind of work while engendering requisite levels of commitment to democracy in general and the protection of civil liberties in particular. In short, if my argument is correct, Guptagate should be the least of our worries. What should worry us more is the possibility that Guptagate represents a tendency that started before the advent of democracy in 1994 and probably includes networks that straddle the period before and after the end of apartheid.