If you drive on the N1 through Midrand after sunset, and look to the east, you’ll notice a blacked-out building. The once iconic business of the Gupta family, Sahara, stands in complete darkness. In the day, the desolate parking lot and weeds rising through the pavement adds to the statement of abrupt abandonment.
To think that a family came to South Africa and built an illegitimate business empire over the course of 20 years, only to see all of it crumble or be sold within a few months. A number of companies belonging to the family are reportedly filing for business rescue; others have been sold off, while some of their former employees are not getting paid. Assets have also been frozen.
At least one of the brothers is a fugitive in South Africa - officially. Some of their associates and family members have appeared in court and the brothers on Monday failed to appear before tax authorities in India, their home country (at least for those who did not become South African citizens). Who would have thought a family with close ties to South Africa’s political elite could go from daylight-looting to hiding from SAPS bakkies? The key phrase here is ‘political elite’.
In democracies, the ‘political elite’ rarely refers to a fixed group. The family might have bargained on an ally succeeding their close friend Jacob Zuma as party leader, but that was not the case. Even if it was, another party might have walked away with a bigger share of the votes in 2019, making it even harder for the family to manipulate and ransack the political landscape.
An empire is awfully fragile if the fate of one man can have such a profound impact on it. This is not to suggest that Zuma was the only elected official that did the Guptas’ bidding, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the family, and by extent their cronies in government, largely depended on his political position. (It makes you wonder what Zuma got in return)
Perhaps the day the Guptas started packing was on that fateful night in December, when the former president’s preferred candidate lost the race to succeed him as party leader. By Valentine’s Day – the day Zuma resigned as state president – the family was locking the doors behind them.
Zuma himself is facing tough times. He has been summoned to appear in court on the 6th of April on 16 charges, including fraud and corruption. His access to state resources to fight his battles is waning, his legal bills are piling up, and decisions, such as appointing commissions of inquiry - and determining their terms of reference, is out of his hands. As a result, there is nothing preventing law enforcement agencies from going after him, the Guptas or any other official implicated.
A hawk simply glides on political winds
The sudden movements, including arrests and raids by the Hawks, and the reinstatement of charges by the prosecuting authority might be considered a welcome development at first. But once you consider the time line, the sudden actions are also concerning.
The Guptas did not exploit their political ties for business purposes from late 2016. And the accusations in the media against the family are not recent. The so-called GuptaLeaks exposed the family’s dirty dealings, but it mostly verified the investigative reports that came in the years before it. Even worse, Jacob Zuma’s corruption allegations came before South Africans sent him to the Union Buildings. The story is almost as old as the country’s democracy.
Law enforcement agencies – not the hard working investigators – but the political appointees will tell you investigations take time. Shaun Abrahams will say Zuma used every legal means to not have his day in court. But the concerning factor is that until Zuma resigned, the NPA never showed any indication of opposing his court applications. Any prosecutions boss that hinted as much, suddenly faded into retirement. (Reminder: not a single NDPP since the turn of the century has completed a term)
Investigators and prosecutors have been sitting with reports, dockets and evidence files, waiting to strike. They only got their opportunity when their bosses had a new political leader to impress.
Cyril Ramaphosa ascended to the presidency on the anti-corruption ticket. His remarks about questionable officials, including Abrahams and the now suspended SARS boss, reaffirm that. And since his appointment, much has changed.
These sudden developments are not in themselves wrong. Rather the context in which they are taking place is what is concerning. The actions by law enforcement agencies have demonstrated how fragile the shadow state is, but they also demonstrate the weight of political sentiment in the administration of justice.
According to their legislative frameworks, the NPA and Hawks, and any other law enforcement body for that matter, has to act independently of the politics of the day. But South Africa’s recent past indicates otherwise. We are only turning a blind eye now, because the ‘Corrupter in Chief’ has been replaced by someone we perceive as clean.