Last June, I watched a pair of makeshift coffins crowdsurf across Boipatong Stadium in Gauteng, South Africa. Thousands of people, clad in crimson berets and faux military regalia, took turns passing the empty boxes overhead as young women danced onstage to Rihanna’s Kiss it Better. The rally was billed as an opportunity to watch Julius Malema, president of South Africa’s third largest political bloc, the Economic Freedom Fighters, commemorate lives lost during the 1976 Soweto Uprising. But by mid-afternoon, it had erupted into an outright referendum on the country’s ruling party, flavored by a curious mix of Afropop and The Billboard Hot 100. As one of the caskets floated toward me above the crowd, I could make out a short declaration scrawled in red: REST IN PAIN ZUPTA.
“The President is a monster,” Mangaliso Nolusu, a college student at North-West University, explained to me on the outskirts of the rally. “He’s beyond corrupt…he’s stealing everything he can.”
“State capture” regularly dominates the headlines of major news agencies operating out of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban. The term has come to refer to an alleged criminal plot—launched by an Indian-born South African business family, the Guptas, and their company, Oakbay Investments—to form a “shadow government” alongside a complicit President Jacob Zuma. The alliance has come to be known as “#Zupta.”
It’s difficult to summarize the whole affair, but imagine a trove of leaked emails à la the U.S. 2016 presidential election (on steroids) implicating the country’s leader, his allies, and a British PR firm in an alleged conspiracy to purposely inflame racial tensions through fake Twitter accounts. And if the emails are to be believed, the efforts were all an attempt to deflect attention from the corruption of a myriad of public officials and state enterprises. The matter could inspire more than a few plotlines on House of Cards.
In the midst of this sordid political drama, the people have suffered. In 2017, the number of South Africans living in poverty increased to 30.4 million—more than 55 percent of the country’s total population. The unemployment rate, now at approximately 26.6 percent, stands at a 14-year high. And, according to Statistician-General Dr. Pali Lehohla, “anemic economic growth” and “educational outcome failures” will only exacerbate current financial stagnation, which is unduly taxing on populations of color.
The Guptas and President Zuma have long-maintained their innocence, but an upcoming African National Congress (ANC) elective conference may finally bring about the beginning of the end for both. But even their ouster would leave the country still festering with deep, open wounds.
The state capture scandal starts with a set of fraternal billionaires.
Brothers Ajay, Atul, and Rajesh Gupta moved to Johannesburg from Saharanpur in 1993, hoping to expand their family tech startup, Sahara Computers, into a multi-industry empire. The gamble paid off, and within a few years they had bought up a score of mining and engineering companies, a high-end game lodge, and a 24-hour news network.
The trio began to garner the South African press’ attention when stories bubbled up detailing their use of a government air force base for a private wedding. Revelations that the brothers had gradually come to employ President Zuma’s son, Duduzane, daughter, Duduzile, and one of his wives, Bongi, only intensified worries of state capture: a rumored network of bribes, kickbacks, money laundering, and compromised public officials.
Then, in March 2016, Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas alleged the Guptas had offered him approximately 43 million dollars in exchange for future loyalty.
“‘You will have to work with [us].’ Basically that’s what [the Guptas] said,” Mcebisi asserted in a July 2017 interview with BBC News.
It was around this time that Bell-Pottinger—a now-defunct public relations firm—set up shop in Johannesburg. Hired by Ajay, Atul, and Rajesh, the outfit was tasked with cleaning up the image of Oakbay Investments for a humble 130,000 dollars a month. In response, consultants attempted to dredge up ethnic tensions in the nation that suffered through apartheid.
“This is a company that once bragged about its ability to ‘drown out negative content,’” Phillip de Wet, an Associate Editor at The Mail & Guardian who has chronicled the state capture saga since its inception, explained in an online correspondence with The Politic.
Prior to filing for bankruptcy in September 2017, Bell-Pottinger was subject to a number of high-profile accusations of suspect business practices. The most eye-catching include the use of “sockpuppets”—or false online identities—to strategically edit clients’ Wikipedia pages, and the negotiation of a series of contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense to covertly produce fake al-Qaeda style propaganda videos in Iraq. In retrospect, however, the controversies are rather tame, compared to a cache of leaked electronic communications obtained by the South African press earlier this year.
In one explosive email exchange between Duduzane, President Zuma’s son, and Victoria Geoghegan, Bell-Pottinger’s lead partner on the Guptas’ Oakbay account, there is evidence of a coordinated effort to sow discord by manipulating the national conversation. The emails suggest that the pair sought to pull public scrutiny away from alleged state capture by ramping up demands for “economic emancipation”–pushing the “grassroots” to rebel against “economic apartheid.” The firm even guided the political rhetoric of Gupta-Zuma loyalists in the ANC.
“I can tell you how sneakily pernicious their tactics were,” Adam Krok ’19, an Ethics, Politics, & Economics major from Johannesburg, said in an interview with The Politic. “[South African populists] consistently refer to ‘white monopoly power,’ the idea that business lies predominantly in white hands, and through the influence of money, white people control the government. It’s prima facie a convincing argument because of the very real, enormous discrepancy of wealth between black and white people in South Africa.”
“It was only much later I learned that that direct phrase was started from [Bell-Pottinger] and the Guptas, as a diversion tactic to keep politics away from the Gupta’s enormous influence over Zuma. Blame white business, while we, the Guptas, continue to loot the state,” Krok continued.
Indeed, the legacies of colonialism and apartheid still haunt Desmond Tutu’s “rainbow nation,” but the manner of vitriolic racial animus that’s popped up in the last two years is dangerous–fueled, at least in part, by automated social media bots that some journalists claim were loosed by Bell-Pottinger. Daily Maverick reporter Jean le Roux tracked dozens of fake, propaganda accounts for months, and ultimately published a report asserting the parallel activity between different profiles indicated a coordinated troll campaign.
Bell-Pottinger has since gone bankrupt, as word of its actions in South Africa resulted in a mass exodus of clients, shareholders, and senior staff. Chief Executive James Henderson resigned and Victoria Geoghegan was fired. Unfortunately, the damage has been done.
“The exit of Bell Pottinger from the fray has made little difference to the dirty propaganda being used,” de Wet explained. “The misinformation websites are still going, the Twitter trolls are still around, and the lies are still being told.”
All the while, the President has carried on.
“It takes remarkable cunning to survive more than 700 corruption allegations. Zuma is one of the smartest political operators in the game,” Krok said with a frustrated smirk.
The leader displayed a near-catlike ability to routinely outmaneuver career-killing political scandals even before he ascended to power in May 2009. He has overcome 783 corruption and racketeering charges, a 2005 rape charge, no less than six no-confidence votes, and massive fallout following two midnight cabinet reshuffles that cost the country billions of dollars.
This past August, during the South African parliament’s sixth motion of no-confidence in Zuma, MPs were permitted to cast blind votes, an unprecedented move.
“This meant that even the ANC members who despised Zuma could vote against him without fear of party retaliation. Yet Zuma still survived!” Krok continued.
“I imagine the ANC MPs who still voted for Zuma under the blind vote must be in as corrupt a boat as the president” Krok said.. “Freed to vote with their consciences, party allegiance was no longer a good excuse.”
De Wet reiterated Krok’s advice to never count against the embattled leader: “It’s fascinating to watch Zuma turn every fiasco to his advantage. For instance, it looks like he’ll defend himself against ancient criminal charges by arguing that [a KPMG forensic audit into his finances] can’t be trusted because of its brush with his friends, the Guptas.”
“With a KPMG report as the core of the corruption case against him, and with KPMG’s reputation now shot…hey presto, Zuma shouldn’t have to face those criminal charges.”
The leader is a fascinating case study—an unapologetic polygamist whose political savvy is predicated on no more than a sixth-grade education. It’s also important to note he spent ten years imprisoned on Robben Island for anti-apartheid activism. Since then, he has masterfully risen through the ranks of South African politics, largely through a calculated network of patronage and blackmail. This December, however, Zuma will have no choice but to step down as the head of the ANC, having served his allocated two terms.
“Right now it is all about the year-end elective conference,” de Wet told The Politic, “if Zuma does not get a loyal defender as the new party leader he is, quite simply, screwed.”
Over the summer, the leader publicly lost the support of the ANC’s two alliance partners: the South African Communist party and trade union federation COSATU. He also managed to unite the country’s two leading opposition blocs—the hard left Economic Freedom Fighters and the center-right Democratic Alliance—as a bizarre political odd-couple dead set against him.
And so, pressed on all sides, the outgoing leader has moved to endorse his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, over his own Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, to be his successor.
More than a month out from the contest, it’s still too early to offer a real prediction. But de Wet smells blood in the water: “the easiest possible political win for a new incumbent is to promise to ‘renew’ the ANC, and prove willingness to do so by crucifying Zuma.”
More than a few parents brought their children to the EFF event at Boipatong Stadium last June. Friendly teenagers, sporting Marvel Comics t-shirts and wool caps, roamed about the arena in loose huddles. The rally-goers were frustrated, fed up with a sluggish economy, racial inequality, and years of entrenched government corruption.
But the affair wasn’t excessively raucous. Those gathered were happy warriors, motivated by a genuine faith in their political system. Most I spoke with would be hardpressed to believe their country is another Zimbabwe or Zambia. They told me they see the Guptas, Zuma, and Bell-Pottinger not as defining features of their politics, but as a problem that can be defeated. They know South Africa will overcome.
Maria Mokoena brought her ten year-old son, Lesedi, with her to the Boipatong rally. We spoke early that morning, before the floating coffins captured the crowd’s attention. “The country is in a bad place right now,” she told me as Lesedi pulled at her sleeve. “But I have so much hope. I really do.”