These include the parastatal board members and executives who have orchestrated vast transfers from the fiscus to the Guptas; the prosecutors, police officers and tax collection officials who have turned a blind eye to theft, embezzlement, private spying and violent intimidation; the raft of national, provincial and local government politicians and public servants who have diverted funds from legitimate public projects.
Do these people believe in what they are doing? Or do they understand themselves as mere thieves?
If they regard themselves as thieves they are no more than nihilists, people who care only what happens to this generation and perhaps the next; after that, they don’t give a damn. If they are true believers, they genuinely think that they are making a better world.
The difference matters because it shapes what they will do next.
I think many people on board the Gupta train are true believers and what they believe is an extreme variant of populist strain prevalent in many parts of the world.
On the evening he fired Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister, Zuma warned of the sophisticated ways in which the enemy confuses black people. One source of such confusion was economy orthodoxy.
“I am rebelling against [the idea that] what determines the value of a commodity is the law of supply and demand . . . The value of a commodity is the labour time taken in production of that commodity,” he said.
Zuma was suggesting that the most fundamental of economic laws was merely nominal; remove the scales from our eyes and we see that so-called economic laws are a ruse invented by the powerful.
This view was displayed by Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane in April, when S&P Global and Fitch downgraded South Africa’s sovereign credit rating.
“It’s actually better western investors pull back and we have the opportunity to bring them back on our own terms, after we have consolidated our relations with Africa and Brics. Let the rand fall and rise and emerge with the masses,” she wrote. In this view, the hoops through which you jump to attract foreign capital are mere stages in a game invented by others. You can simply stop playing the game and choose another.
This is precisely what Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane believes. When she turned her thinking to central bank policy, her main inspiration was a holocaust denier, Stephen Mitford Goodson.
Inflation targeting, she believes, is a hoax orchestrated behind the scenes by a global elite.
Quoted in this way, disembodied from the conversations in which they are expressed, these views are hard to take seriously. But they are widespread and deeply rooted in South African culture.
The people on the Gupta train are true believers and what they believe is credible to many ordinary South Africans. They are in a state of denial about our peripheral place in a difficult world. South Africa, after all, is a medium-sized economy vulnerable to powerful currents. For generations, its vulnerability was masked by the gold in its earth.
But that mask has long slipped. South Africa does need to play by the rules of a global economy. If it stops playing by these rules, it is screwed.
Those on the Gupta train believe the rules to be a hoax. They believe they can simply stop playing the game. Now that they are being accused of gross criminality, now that they know that if they lose the 2019 election they may be in trouble, their sense of self-righteousness will only grow. After all, those who buck the system invented by the powerful are always attacked, are they not?
- Steinberg teaches African Studies at Oxford University and is a visiting professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.