The most revealing thing about Guptagate is that apparently no-one in the Presidency or the cabinet is to blame. Five officials have been suspended pending an inquiry. So if we are to believe the Zuma administration’s claims of innocence, it can only mean one or more of those officials acted entirely on their own.
How can that be? How can a mature administration that has been in power for nearly 20 years allow a situation to develop where paid officials, unelected civil servants, feel able to take a controversial political decision and put into play a highly complex operation involving the use of state resources, without obtaining any ministerial authorisation for their actions?
What enabled them to believe they could do such a thing?
Were they badly trained, never told where their responsibilities begin and where they end? What the limits of their powers are? And if so, how did they rise to such senior positions in the public service, including one individual who, for heaven’s sake, is chief of state protocol?
The answers to these questions go to the very heart of how our country is run.
Somehow, I doubt the investigation that has been ordered is going to give us those answers – because I believe the truth is too embarrassing.
That truth, I strongly suspect, is that those who gave the go-ahead for the private jet bringing the 200 guests to the Gupta family wedding to land at the country’s main Waterkloof Air Force Base did so simply because they assumed that is what President Jacob Zuma wanted.
And even if they were uncertain about whether this had been authorised at a higher level, they would not have wanted to displease or, worse still, embarrass the president by turning away his special friends on what for them was such a special occasion.
In considering this let us not forget – certainly none who work in the media will – that President Zuma is not someone you can quickly telephone to establish the facts in such a situation. Nor are members of his cabinet, and even if they were contactable there would be no way of knowing whether they were fully informed of Zuma’s wishes on such a delicate personal matter.
So where does the fault for all this lie? In the first instance surely with Zuma himself, for allowing the impression to become so deeply entrenched that the Guptas are, indeed, his special friends and that if you are a civil servant eager to remain in the president’s good books you had better not treat them as just ordinary foreigners.
But beyond that it is not the fault of Zuma alone, as I see it, but of the culture that has evolved within the ANC and its alliance partners – a culture I would say that not only requires acquiescence among its members and those who serve it, but encourages ingratiation among those who want to advance their careers or even keep their present senior positions.
To fall out of favour with the president, or what is perceived to be the Zuma faction within the ANC, is to jeopardise your career. You could lose your job in an administration that appoints only loyal cadres to key positions in the civil service and in the parastatals it controls.
This is not just a rumour that pervades the ranks of the civil service, it is a reality they see in their everyday lives.
How many ANC members perceived to have been in the Thabo Mbeki camp at Polokwane still occupy key positions in government? Only a handful, and rest assured they won’t survive much longer.
Meanwhile we are watching the gradual weeding out, right down to ANC branch level, of those who supported Deputy President Kgalema Mothlante at Mangaung.
Life is short for those who fall out of favour with Jacob Zuma. Ask Julius Malema. His outrageous behaviour, even his blatant corruption, was tolerated as long as he served Zuma as a kind of brownshirt rabble-rouser who mobilised the mobs and disrupted opposition functions, but his fortunes have taken a spectacular dive since he turned against Zuma.
Ask the Rev Frank Chikane, an ANC stalwart who survived an assassination attempt by the apartheid regime during the Struggle years and went on to give loyal service to two presidents as director-general of the Presidency, but who now, as he has written in his books, is being blackballed for having been too loyal to one of them.
Perhaps it is endemic in all revolutionary movements that they require total loyalty. They are so vulnerable to the infiltration of spies for the regimes they are trying to overthrow that they must forever be on guard against any hint of disloyalty. And of course independence is impossible in such organisations, especially as they become militarised.
The sad thing is that these requirements, so obviously necessary and understandable during the struggle phase of a revolutionary movement’s history, have persisted at least to a degree into the life of the ANC as the government of a constitutional democracy.
In some measure this is surely because the ANC has resisted the idea of transforming itself from a revolutionary movement into a more orthodox political party. Understandably, it wants to retain the cachet of having waged a revolutionary struggle to help free its people, but the very concept of still being committed to a “national democratic revolution” (whatever that means) keeps it mired in the culture of the past.
As the ANC will discover in time, that revolutionary image is a diminishing asset that is already being overtaken by the negativity of the movement’s lack of transparency. And by its habit of squeezing independent-minded members into the wilderness.
Worse still is the culture I have tried to analyse here, that encourages acquiescence and ingratiation by its rank-and-file members and particularly its deployed cadres. Members of Parliament, who according to the constitution are supposed to represent the people first and their parties second, don’t interrogate their ministers adequately, as became evident after Zuma’s highly questionable deployment of South African troops to defend – and die for – a corrupt dictator in the Central African Republic.
Now we have an instance of ingratiation; of senior civil servants trying to do what they thought would please Zuma, currying favour with him by helping his special friends even when not ordered to do so. Or, at the very least, not risking their careers by offending him should they have denied the Gupta plane landing rights at Waterkloof and ordered it to fly on to OR Tambo International Airport – where, God forbid, the dazzling 200 “royalists” would have had to suffer the indignity of landing with the hoi polloi and going through customs and immigration with them.
As for the Guptas, the one thing they cannot be accused of is subtlety. The grossness of their abuse of Zuma’s naivety and his addiction to great wealth and those who have it defines them – and him.
Guptagate has been a sordid little affair, but rich in its exposure of all involved.
l Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.