By Carl Niehaus*
On the eve of former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s forced resignation this writer tweeted the well-known nursery rhyme:
sat on a [high moralistic] wall
had a great fall,
All the King’s horses,
All the King’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty
The Twitterati responded with a mixture of incredulity, laughter and a few with self-righteous anger at the lack of reverence for the tragicomedy that played itself out. Of course, it was inevitable that a recording of an SABC interview of a couple of years ago, when a chair gave way under a younger Nene’s considerable girth, and he literally fell out of the camera frame, made the rounds as a handy visualization of his dramatic fall from grace. The Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme was a somewhat viscous, but appropriate, accompaniment.
It also proved the old saying that truth can be stranger than fiction! What South Africa witnessed on Tuesday afternoon was the exit of Nhlanhla Nene for the second time from the Ministry of Finance because of events – perceived or real – related to an Indian business family who relatively recently emigrated to our country. Both instances could not have been more public and high-profile, and the amount of noise that accompanied it made it very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between public perception, fiction and fact.
When former President Jacob Zumba released Nene of his duties as Minister of Finance in that dramatic late-night announcement on the 10th of December 2015 he did not, in line with custom, say why he was removing him. However, this did not prevent the mainstream media from fueling the fires of a deliberate narrative that Nene was removed because he was not prepared to do the bidding for the Gupta family.
There is no need to regurgitate in detail the turbulent few days that followed, which included the weekend-long stint of Des van Rooyen as Minister of Finance and his replacement, under huge pressure from the white captains of monopoly capital, by the comeback kid, Pravin Gordhan, for another also short-lived second stint in the hallowed halls of Treasury. The game of musical chairs was in full swing.
Of course, we also remember the return again of Nhlanhla Nene in President Ramaphosa’s caretaker cabinet, which has to carry the ANC through to next years national elections. After Nene’s removal by former President Jacob Zuma, the mainstream media carried his re-appointment with a sense of glee as poetic justice, as being a vindication after the ‘injustice’ that had been done to him.
Well, as we now know this euphoria was not to last, and the buoyant ship that Nene was supposed to be, quickly ran ashore on the very same Gupta rocks that supposedly shipwrecked it the first time. As another old saying goes, the first time it was a tragedy but the second time farce …
Together with some of his fellow comrades, Nene had carefully constructed a narrow and a-historical narrative of ‘state capture’ as a phenomenon that apparently only commenced with the event of the arrival of the Gupta family on our shores. Literally throwing into the wind centuries of colonialism and white monopoly capitalist control of the South African economy.
In this narrative backed up by the ‘State of Capture’ report of the former Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, the Guptas were seemingly solely responsible for state capture, and it became the convenient short-hand for a broad sweep of allegations that could be bandied around to taint political opponents and keep them responsible for every socio-political ill that our country is faced with. Cynical jokes started making the rounds that former President Zuma got blamed for everything from bad weather to currency fluctuations, with all and everything in-between, and this was somehow always tied up with visits to the ‘Saxonwold shebeen’.
Who can forget the myriad of allegations Madonsela levelled against Brian Molefe on the basis of his mobile phone GPS records having placed him a couple of times in the vicinity of the ‘Gupta compound’ in Saxonwold? All of this reached fever pitch in the run-up to the ANC leadership elections at its 54th National Conference. The group that Nene is associated with simply tainted those who were executing their democratic prerogative to support a different candidate, as ‘Guptas’. The writer was many times in a derogative manner called a ‘Gupta’, only because he used every media platform to promote the issues he considers important, including the ANN7 channel which was then owned by the Gupta family. This, while he had never in his life even once met any member of the Gupta family. Interestingly he was not called a ‘Rupert’ or a ‘Kirsch’ when interviewed on eNCA, Radio 702, News24 and a myriad of other media platforms outright owned, or controlled through majority shareholding, by the captains of white monopoly capital. Being a ‘Gupta’ rendered one immediately corrupt and responsible for every possible social ill.
Those comrades who enthusiastically, and as the elections at the ANC National Conference came closer, with almost fanatical vitriol used the ‘Gupta’ tag to vilify their opponents, were of course enthusiastically abetted by the mainstream WMC media with their myriad of media platforms. The ‘Guptarization’ of the strongest proponents of Radical Economic Transformation (RET) and the expropriation of land without compensation in the ANC became a propaganda phenomenon of tsunami proportions.
All of this served those, who with so much enthusiastic and unrestrained abundance indulged in it, well to have achieved some of their desired outcomes at the ANC National Conference. But like party revellers who enjoyed the bubbly too much, and never think of the headache of the morning after, they are now faced with a bad case of babalaas.
The reckless bandying about of an ill-defined, and historically very incorrect, allegation of ‘state capture’ (I won’t even dignify it with calling it a definition, because the World Bank definition of state capture has been yanked into the South African context with no attempt to anchor it in our socio-economic history), has now given us the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture.
State capture, which is the description of a phenomenon where the owners of capital and the means of production attempt to extend their efforts to influence their governments (which happens everywhere in the world), in order to benefit their business endeavors to such an extent that they gain control over politicians and government officials to do their bidding, can result in crimes of corruption, but is not a crime in itself. Understood as such, the phenomenon of state capture exists all over the world, is almost as old as the mountains, and can at the very least be traced back to the rise of capitalism.
However, because the concept of state capture was abused by some, now in the ascendency, for their own narrow political objectives it became distorted and subverted into being understood by a significant portion of the South African population to be a ‘crime’ itself. Worse, it has actually been narrowed into being a crime only committed by the Gupta family and those who had any association (or are alleged to have had contact) with them.
Using the extremely narrow focus of Madonsela’s ‘State of Capture’ report as it’s terms of reference, the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture has inadvertently been turned into a tool for the perpetuation and legitimization of this subversion and vulgarization of the concept of state capture. Thus, South Africans are now glued in aghast fascination to their television screens watching how having had a cup of coffee, or having enjoyed some biryani at the Gupta family home, is instantaneously converted into an act of subversion, or at the very least an act of ‘criminal intent’.
Just as an aside (and something that needs to be thrashed our far more thoroughly than what the limited space in this article allows for), strangely enough having numerous meetings with the leaders of WMC, including spending weekends with Johann Rupert, the doyen of WMC, at his Leopard Creek golf estate, is presented as perfectly normal, and not even worthy of a frown …
However, not so very long ago for a politician to meet the Guptas, and even visiting them at their home, was considered to be no different than engaging any other ordinary business person (or even not such run-of-the-mill business people, like Johann Rupert or Stephen Koseff). Many ANC politicians (as well as politicians from almost every other political party), including the hapless Nhlanhla Nene, did exactly that.
It is right there where the headache of the indulgences of the ‘night before’ kicks in hard. Sitting like the proverbial Humpy Dumpty on the high moral wall, that he and some of his fellow comrades built, with more than just a little bit on enthusiastic help from WMC and their media lackeys, Nhlanhla Nene sensed coming disaster when a journalist of eNCA asked him about possible meetings with members of the Gupta family. Like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, he first froze, panicked and then jumped into the apparent safety of a lie of denial. Just watch that interview again, with the knowledge of hindsight one can see it all happening with the uncomfortable body language and averted eyes. Right there and then his goose was cooked.
It was only a matter of time before Humpty Dumpty was going to come crashing down, and what a pitiful, yet spectacular fall from grace it turned out to be! Right there in the glaring floodlights of live television coverage of the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, that he and his colleagues laboured so hard to establish.
Painful and traumatic as this already turned out to be, the end is nigh. Perched on that same wobbly high wall of dubious morality are many more Humpty Dumpties – some known, others not yet known, who enjoyed a cup of tee or plate of curry (or perhaps something more compromising) from some member of the Gupta family. When the spotlight turns on them, what are they going to do?
Following the almost default instincts of politicians, the most likely scenario is that they will – like the fallen Nene – try to duck, dive and deny. One needs to only look at the panic-stricken response by Blade Nzimande after a journalist sent him a couple of questions about four or more visits to the Gupta home, and the possible largesse of an alleged R 1,5 million cash payment. Within hours a lawyers letter full of threats to the journalist, a convoluted and verbose media statement by the SACP, and a desperate media campaign trying to portray Nzimande as a hapless victim followed. Clearly, the babalaas of the morning after is going to last for some time, and it is really bad (just in case anyone wonders, yes, in the instance of Nzimande the pun is intended).
One may have been able to conjure up some sympathy for those who now face the unravelling of their political careers, for actions that initially may have appeared to be so run-of-the-mill, commonplace and almost innocent. However, sympathy should be in short supply, especially for those who so deliberately and deviously manipulated the political environment for their own personal elevation and edification.
That those who so carefully dug graves for others are now beginning to fall into those very same graves, is the true poetical justice of this season.
*Carl Niehaus wrote this article in his personal capacity.