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Martin Rhodes

The notion of state capture is currently very topical in South Africa, in both popular and academic circles. According to the popular view, President Jacob Zuma, along with a number of senior civil servants, has been captured and is doing the bidding of a well-heeled expatriate Indian family, the Guptas. A more plausible explanation of the nature of this relationship is required.

During the past year, political debate in South Africa has been dominated by the notion of state capture. More specifically, debate has been dominated by speculation on the nature of the relationship between President Zuma, members of his extended family and influential Indian family, the Guptas. According to popular lore, not to mention several academic treatises, the Gupta family has somehow managed to capture President Zuma and other senior civil servants and been able to manipulate them into awarding them a number of lucrative public contracts. This has enabled the Gupta family to become fabulously wealthy.

For a number of reasons, the assertion that the most powerful person in the country has somehow been captured is unconvincing. Indeed, the very proposition that a democratically-elected president of a sovereign nation of 55 million citizens can somehow manage to get ensnared in the schemes of a single family, no matter how influential, simply beggars belief. Far more plausible in one’s view that President Zuma and his coterie of advisors and assorted hangers-on have captured the Guptas by deliberately seeking them out and cajoling them into becoming a convenient conduit for their ill-gotten gains whilst bearing public blame for corruption and all that is wrong in South Africa.  

To see how capturing the Guptas benefits President Zuma, it is necessary to delve into the mind of a former intelligence operative and astute political operator who has displayed an inclination to appeal to ethnic stereotypes when deemed politically useful to do so. Presumably, President Zuma is well aware of the negative stereotypes attached to Indian businesspersons and the latent animosity between certain sections of the black African majority and members of the significant Indian minority in KwaZulu-Natal. In particular, he is likely to be familiar with the suspicion with which many Africans view ‘cunning’ and ‘conniving’ Indian businessmen. For an indication of some of the chauvinistic attitudes which hold sway amongst members of this group, one need only read the vitriol spouted by the likes of the Mazibuye African Forum, for example.

In this environment, a skilled political operator who is plotting on engaging in corruption might calculate that cultivating a mutually beneficial corrupt relationship with elite members of a substantial but politically insignificant minority group of which a sizeable portion of his grassroots supporters are weary would bestow a number of benefits. Most obviously, it deflects popular attention away from him and his cronies’ motives to the perceived influence of the Guptas. Secondly, should this relationship sour or be deemed no longer expedient, it would be fairly easy for President Zuma to abandon the Guptas and seek pardon from members of his primary constituency by playing on racist tropes and explaining his indiscretions in terms of his weakness to withstand the wiles of the stereotypical greedy Indian or shrewd Indian which appear to be so prevalent in some Black business circles. In so doing, he will be able to cast himself as a victim who fell prey to an Indian bogeyman. Moreover, the potential threat which the Guptas, beholden as their economic fortunes are to their relationship with members of President Zuma’s inner circle and bereft of public sympathy, could pose should they be pushed from this circle is minimal. Thus, insiders would be able to continue with their dealings confident that the Guptas would be incapable of mounting a challenge to stop them. Although admittedly foolhardy to speculate on their motives for doing so, the experience of other African states, and many countries across the developing world besides, suggests that the ultimate purpose of these dealings is the creation of patronage networks which will serve to undermine popular democracy and usher in a system of dynastic politics wherein a few families act as kingmakers or provide the candidates from whose ranks leaders are drawn.

One hastens to add that this line of argument is not meant to exonerate the Guptas from any wrongdoing, perceived or otherwise. This is the task of the commission of inquiry which calls are being made for. Based on evidence in the popular domain, however, it is reasonable to assume that the Guptas are not victims. Far from it, it appears they are willing accomplices in whatever schemes are being hatched so long as they benefit from the contracts in which they’re involved. 

The only real victims here are members of the Indian working class, for whom the growing perception that all Indians belong to a relatively privileged group will only foment racial resentment and serve to fuel calls to curtail future opportunities for their economic advancement. To counter their potential marginalisation, members of working class Indian communities could act to reject the racial identity politics which defines South Africa’s political life and embrace their working class roots. In other words, they could resume their posts in the vanguard of the struggle for economic justice in South Africa to which the numerous examples of Indians’ solidarity with workers of other races attests. Maybe this will be sufficient to debunk the absurd notion of ‘state capture’ and expose the true political masterminds behind the diabolical project to loot the state that is underway in South Africa.

* Gerard Boyce is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Development and Population Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He writes in his personal capacity.



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