Thursday, May 16, 2013

South Africa: The Guptagate scandal in the broader context of political accountability

Source: ISS

The Guptagate scandal in the broader context of political accountability

Stefan Gilbert, Consultant, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

'Guptagate', as the media have dubbed the controversial circumstances surrounding the recent Gupta wedding in South Africa, is but the latest scandal for a government that seems particularly skilled in generating good media fodder. Despite the seriousness of the failures of the various departments and individuals involved, many of whom have been summarily suspended without due process, this affair will no doubt soon be relegated to the large and growing list of unresolved and largely forgotten political embarrassments. The media, and the public for that matter, have notoriously short attention spans. Another headline will soon mask the fact that this scandal is but one in a litany of incidents that speak to an endemic failure of ethical governance and the progressive deterioration of the rule of law in South Africa. Just to be clear: if foreign businessmen can appropriate a military air force base for their personal use, there is a serious problem.

Focusing on the specifics of Guptagate, or any of the other ‘gates’ that have come and gone over the past several years, keeps us preoccupied with details and getting the facts straight. Who did and did not do what? Who, we want to know, is ultimately responsible? As with the other scandals, the now ubiquitous ‘internal investigation’ is being launched to figure out who is to blame for Guptagate. In this instance, several government ministers and other high-level officials were rapidly deployed to a media briefing to demonstrate that the ANC, and the President in particular, were exceedingly unhappy with the Guptas’ behaviour and to assure the public that the culprits would be brought to book. Thus far, denials of prior knowledge by government heads seems to indicate that nobody at the top is likely to carry any of the blame, where, in fact, the greatest duty of accountability rests.

The South African government appears anxious to limit the scope of the investigation to the misconduct of specific public servants. The subtext that must be highlighted is why, if the President and his ministers were unaware of the actions to facilitate the wedding plans of their friends, did these public servants independently make choices that could seriously jeopardise their jobs? The investigation to identify how such a monumental lapse of security and judgment could occur is unlikely to yield satisfactory answers. Issues relating to conflicts of interest, that perhaps senior politicians relationship with the Guptas is too cosy, is unlikely to be thoroughly examined. Particularly worrying is that, even after the scandal broke in the media, high ranking government officials nevertheless attended the Gupta wedding and celebrations. This trend in apportioning blame to lower ranking officials undermines the idea that responsibility starts at the top, and supplants it with the notion that leaders are not accountable for the actions of those who report to them. ‘Not knowing’ or being unaware of decisions taken by underlings seems now to be an acceptable excuse.

With unusual speed, the President defined the parameters of what may be investigated or critically assessed. This scandal may not, we are cryptically cautioned, jeopardise harmonious trade relations with India, although the link between a breach of national security by the Gupta wedding party and BRIC trade relations is not clarified. Placing such importance on the relationship between India and South Africa did not seem to be such a high priority in the recent past, with reports that President Zuma had snubbed the Indian Prime Minister during the BRICS Summit recently held in Durban. The message, however, is clear: the personal and financial relationships between the Guptas, the Zuma clan and cabinet ministers should not come under the microscope.

Like a wayward child, the Gupta family has been publically admonished by the ANC for abusing personal relationships. No mention was made of the fact that relationships of this sort may be inappropriate, and that they threaten to fundamentally undermine the integrity, sovereignty and security of the South African state.

Some recent media articles have also highlighted that the behaviour of many of the political elite, including the President, may be considered one of the biggest risks to national security. Blurring the distinctions between private, financial, national and public interests, the ruling elite seem to view the country and its resources, including the military, as tools that may be used with little accountability to the public they serve (the recent debacle in the Central African Republic also comes to mind). As others have rightly pointed out, there appears to be an increasing tendency within the ruling party to conflate the institution of the state and the organisation of the ANC, which has the effect of personalising government as an extension of narrow interests. The Gupta wedding illustrates clearly how this phenomenon can manifest in reality.

From a broader perspective, these arguments point to a much more fundamental and worrying issue. There is a paradox, or catch-22, that occurs with increasing frequency both on the continent and globally. Simple manifestations of this can be seen in the futility of ‘internal investigations’, where implicated individuals and institutions are themselves tasked with investigating wrongdoing within their own ranks. For more complex and macro-level examples, the situation in Madagascar is perhaps one of the starkest. In this instance, the political impasse the country has faced for three years is being perpetuated by the ruling political and economic elite. Yet these are the very same people, due to their positions and political mandate, who must find the solution. It defies logic: when those tasked with finding a way around an obstacle are in fact the obstacle, what way forward can be found?

This is the crux of the problem in 'Guptagate'. That the offenders in this instance are the Guptas is irrelevant. Previously it was the Shaiks, now it is the Gupta family. If not them, it will be someone else. As the country drifts further away from the principles enshrined in the Freedom Charter and the Constitution, space has been opened for opportunistic political and economic interests. The manner in which parts of the justice system, particularly those with investigative and prosecutorial authority have been undermined, the lack of transparent and independent investigations of governmental abuse of power, ranging from the arms deal to Nkandlagate and now Guptagate, to name but a few, are not individual failures. They are symptomatic of a much broader and fundamental lapse in political accountability.

With elections coming up in 2014, now may be a good time to review the electoral system, as was promised in the early years of the transition. The ‘closed list’ method has concentrated power within the elite of the ruling party, and the people of South Africa are thereby unable to hold any specific individual to account. A mixed or constituency-based system can change this, and bring the people closer to those who govern. The recent emphasis on rooting out corruption in government is welcome, but long overdue.