Guptagate Open: An interview with Dr Nomalanga Mkhize and Richard Pithouse

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As the ANC becomes increasingly divided along ideological and moral lines, it becomes ever more difficult to form an opinion on anything from possible problems with leadership to the ultimate question of the future of our one-time Resistance Movement. The most recent crisis, once more involving the Gupta family, has led to talk of more splits in the party.

‘Sources’, whose avowed anonymity bears striking resemblance to similar ‘sources’ who reported a rift between Jacob Zuma and then-president Thabo Mbeki just before he was ousted, claim that the use of the Waterkloof Air Force Base by the Guptas was the “final straw” for Gwede Mantashe, secretary general of the ANC. The Oppidan Press asked Dr Nomalanga Mkhize of the Department of History and Richard Pithouse of the Department of Political and International Studies for their thoughts on our increasingly tense and fractious political landscape. Mkhize answers first:

“The Gupta debacle is definitely a major problem for the ANC and their ever-worsening image. However, we should not be in a rush to try and identify splits anytime soon. We need to try and understand the beast. The alliance is no longer an ideological one (as it was under apartheid); it is a specifically political alliance consisting predominantly of two kinds of people – different ‘black’ social classes (teachers, nurses, politicians, govt etc.) and the political elites.”

Such political emphasis, at the expense of much of the ANC party’s ideology, seems to be widening the gap between the ANC and its alliance partner COSATU. Together with the recent unrest in the mining sector, writers like Paul Holden and Martin Blaut believe a permanent split between the two to be a strong possibility. However, Mkhize brushes this off:

“COSATU is mostly a public sector union alliance, consisting predominantly of teachers, nurses, policemen, etc. – state employees all. Therefore, it would seem highly unlikely that such a group of people would leave an alliance with the ANC anytime soon as this would endanger their very livelihoods. In fact, such people are now the dominant drivers of a new ANC that is different from the one that Zuma inherited – hence why his position as leader could now be precarious.”

Richard Pithouse seems to agree broadly with Mkhize’s summation:

“Certainly there are acute divisions within COSATU, and it’s possible that there may be some fracturing as a result of these, but the bulk of the federation is likely to stay with the ANC because that is in the interests of its leaders. What is much more interesting, I think, is the development of independent unions.”

Mkhize goes on to ask a potentially far more haunting question of the events that occurred after the Guptas landed their plane at Waterkloof Air Base in Pretoria: “If the Guptas can do what they did, imagine those who have had access to the ANC longer and who own bigger parts of this economy?” The spectres of Kebble, Agliotti, Selebi and Cele lurk in the back of all of our minds.

Mkhize feels that to jump to possible fractures in the ruling party is, perhaps, to clutch at too many straws which simply don’t exist. Ultimately, the history lecturer argues that: “the ANC is definitely embarrassed by the Guptas. It is, in many ways, a crisis for them. However, I only mean this in the sense of ‘they’ve overreached, now we look bad’. ‘Guptagate’ is really just a little bit of bad news for Zuma.”

So, the real question seems to be whether Jacob Zuma will be swept away by the flood resulting from the ‘Guptagate’ scandal. Could this final “little bit” wash our President up on the comfortable shores of Nkandla to live out his days in luxurious ignominy? Mkhize puts it succinctly:

“The reality is that the ANC needs Zuma as he is a figure which can hold factions together. At this point Zuma is a liability, but losing him will cause even bigger fights. Therefore, it would seem that the ANC is likely to try maintain internal unity rather than let go of a useless president. However, if he is found to have given the landing orders [for the Gupta’s jet], the ANC will have little choice but to ask him to step down next year. I doubt such information will come out. But it may.”

Pithouse, not mincing his words, agrees: “It’s highly unlikely that this will be the end for Zuma. Having said this, there is no doubt that ‘Guptagate’ has done considerable damage to what was left of Zuma’s reputation and to the moral authority of the ANC.”

After Andries Tatane, Nkandla and Marikana, such “moral authority” is certainly questionable, and the current flood would only seem to erode the Party’s bare moral foundations even further. Moreover, Pithouse makes an interesting observation when alluding to independent unions, like AMCU, which Mkhize points out are gaining membership fast at the expense of COSATU and its affiliate NUM.

This puts yet more pressure on possible political and ideological divides within the ANC and COSATU as well as between the two organisations themselves. Coupled with yet another (possibly Zuma-induced) ‘crisis’, one can’t help but think that the alliance must begin to  buckle at some point. Mkhize and Pithouse, as well-reasoned and sensible a pair as one is likely to find, don’t seem to think that we have reached that point just yet.

‘Yet’ seems to be the operative word in this phrase though, for if Polokwane 2007 and the use of anonymous ‘sources’ taught us anything it is that when there are such public smoke signals, an ANC leader is most likely being led to the sacrificial fire.

  • This article was published on Oppidan Press.