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It is not clear what genre the movie unfolding in the South African landscape falls under. Is it a thriller whose plot revolves around the heist of the political system? Or a horror movie, filled with macabre scenes of zombies feasting on the flesh of a dying state? No matter the genre, this is one movie guaranteed to keep South Africans glued to their screens.

South Africans following the story unfolding in the #GuptaLeaks would be forgiven for thinking it resembled the hackneyed script of a bad made for TV crime movie. This story is replete with pantomime ‘foreign’ villains, bumbling politicians who can be cheaply bought and wannabe revolutionaries’ clumsy attempts at shake-downs. Like the worst formulaic offerings, the script is riddled with clichés and panders to base popular stereotypes, in this case of Africans’ greed and Indians’ cunningness. Unlike the Eastern European or Latin American mobsters who harbour deeply misogynistic attitudes towards the women they traffic that are so beloved of lazy scriptwriters, the outsider villains of this piece are a family of Indian businessmen who are apparently deeply racist toward their staff.

The tired storyline and one-dimensional characters are likely to put off large numbers of viewers leading many to tune out and skip the predictable ending, which this particular movie looks set to climax in. Current local political and economic dynamics, however, not to mention the experience of other countries on which this script seems loosely based, offer hints that there are a few twists in this tale yet and that the final act promises to be explosive. It may thus be worth viewers’ while not to change the channel but to choose to watch till the end.

One important reason to keep watching is that a major plot hole has yet to be filled. It is yet to be revealed why the villains behave the way they do and why their apparent appetites for stealing vast sums of public money seem to be insatiable. Till now, whether we care to admit it or not, viewers seem content to go along with the premise that it is because the villains are inherently greedy, viz. that their behaviour accords with the popular stereotypes of Indian businesspersons that are prevalent in South Africa. There are enough loose ends, however, to speculate that the acts they have been accused of committing are not solely criminal in nature but form part of a far more elaborate political plot.

In support of this plot twist, consider that either the politically well-connected Guptas engaged in the wholesale bribery of key members of the political establishment, stole large amounts of public money, spied on citizens who uncovered evidence of their wrongdoing and attempted to smear their reputations all right under the noses of the authorities; or that they (the authorities) knew about their dealings but did nothing about it. Either scenario does not inspire confidence in our leaders; they are either supremely incompetent (in the first case) or accomplices in these crimes (in the latter). In both these situations, their weakness leaves the main characters in this drama vulnerable to the scheming of an unseen political mastermind (or minds) who is able to manipulate them into doing their bidding and serving their agenda, knowingly or not.

If so, this contention raises questions about the political ends towards which this off-screen persona seeks to direct our cast members, heroes and villains alike. The stories depicted in other countries’ dramas provide clues that there is only one activity for which the vast sums of money involved, as reported in the popular media, are needed: the purchase of significant levels of influence among key stakeholders in order to subvert popular democracy, shape the form and character of a nation’s political system and secure favoured cliques of insiders’ pre-eminence in the political system so created. It is apparent that pulling off such an ambitious feat would require large amounts of money and, by extension, control over access to substantial financial resources. After all, retaining the services of international public relations firms and manipulating the national media landscape in general (by purchasing media companies and sponsoring fake social media accounts to serve as an echo chamber for one’s views, for example) to ensure a patina of political cover for one’s activities is apt to be an expensive exercise.

Though slick public relations and media campaigns may sway popular opinion, they are unlikely to convince hard-nosed elites to support any particular political vision for society. They would probably demand much more than catchy slogans or vague promises in return for their support. This is likely to apply especially to those occupying the upper echelons of power. Whereas lower down the ranks it might be relatively simpler to advance one’s aims by dispensing the proverbial lead as opposed to silver (as the deadly internal rivalry in ruling party electoral contests and the rise in the number of political killings at local level attests), securing the support of those higher up and, crucially, maintaining their loyalty is likely to be a much more expensive affair.

Consequently, would be plotters would not only need to obtain access to large amounts of cash but also to provide guarantees that they are able to continue to deliver this bounty well into the foreseeable future. This is why engaging in a criminal enterprise like the looting of the coffers of indispensable state owned enterprises is likely to prove so appealing. Securing control over the assets of these key organisations is a sure way to obtain large amounts of cash quickly and, importantly, steadily.

For viewers still not convinced that this plot twist lies in store, consider that these scenes have played out elsewhere before. It will not be the first time political actors, even those that genuinely believe in the righteousness of their cause, deemed it justifiable to engage in criminal activities to fund their legitimate political aspirations. It is an open secret, for example, that the Irish Republican Army resorted to criminal activities such as extortion, robbery and kidnapping to fund its armed struggle during The Troubles. More recently, the Afghan Taliban levied taxes on opium producers to fund its administration when in power.

It is not only non-state entities that participate in such activities. In a contemporary example dominating world headlines, the corruption scandals that have wracked Brazil for the past few months have been caused in part by allegations that political parties on all sides of the political spectrum, along with senior civil servants and respected political leaders, awarded lucrative contracts with state-owned entities to unscrupulous businesspersons in exchange for bribes. These kickbacks were used, in turn, to fund their political campaigns. Yet more controversially, who can forget senior figures in United States President Ronald Regan’s government’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal during the eighties?  

By way of illustration of the possible nexus between the aims of certain senior government officials and those of criminal elements in South Africa, one need only peruse the disturbing reports emerging of senior police figures’ involvement in the ongoing turf war between organised criminal syndicates in the Western Cape underworld. Admittedly, few South Africans are likely to find these accusations newsworthy in and of themselves, accustomed as they are to regular exposés of senior law and order officials (ranging from the Minister of State Security to the National Police Commissioner) who are alleged to consort with criminal elements. This story’s value, however, lies in the insight it might offer into the logic those who seek to loot key state institutions to advance their political ends might appeal to justify their corrupt actions. According to media reports, senior figures in the provincial police force have lent support to one side in this conflict in an attempt to bring some semblance of order to the Cape Town underworld.

Using similar reasoning, those who now appear intent on the audacious project of the grand scale looting of public enterprises may believe that the vision which they seek to impose on South African society is superior to the un-organised corruption that was widely perceived to have reached endemic proportions in the country and the chaotic participatory processes which many of the most vulnerable citizens complain have failed to yield the benefits which the government promised they would.

Despite the plausibility of the plot outlined above, there is one thing that remains unclear: the genre of the movie to which South Africans will be treated. Is it a thriller, the plot of which revolves around the heist of the political system? Or is it a horror movie, filled with macabre scenes of zombies feasting on the flesh of a dying South African state? No matter the genre, this is one movie that is guaranteed to have South Africans glued to their screens.

* GERARD BOYCE is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Development and Population Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.



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