Opinion

Zuma, the Guptas and Caesar’s wife

Zuma and Guptas remind about Ceasar’s wife
Zuma and Gupta.jpg

During a week of hopeful signs that the tone and nature of the discourse between government and various other sectors were changing for the better the Gupta fly spoiled the ointment. (Read more)

In the face of a developing multi-faceted crisis for South Africa, triggered by global economic turmoil, there were signs that normally opposing forces were closing ranks to deal with the challenges confronting the nation.

One of the core threats, with serious implications for social stability, is well illustrated by a recent report by trade union movement Solidarity. While the unemployment rate in the country is already in the danger zone, the report found that besides 45 000 jobs in 58 companies already lost this year to retrenchments, including almost 20 000 jobs in the mining sector, 9 600 in the telecoms sector and more than 5 000 in the steel and metal industry, scores more at 160 companies are under threat.

“In June and July 2015, Solidarity had to deal with about 80% more retrenchment-related enquiries from members compared to the same period last year. When taking all these factors into account, one realises the true extent of the crisis,” Solidarity’s deputy head Johan Kruger said.

Especially South Africa’s massive mining industry, contributing about 7% to GDP, hit by falling international commodity prices, labour turmoil and electricity constraints seems to be in dire straits – as is the steel and metals industry due to among other things the dumping of cheap Chinese steel in the local market.

Some good news

And then there came some good news.

For starters, in a rare show of solidarity labour unions and business collectively succeeded to persuade government to afford the steel and metals industry some protection with import duties – the full 10% allowed under the rules of the World Trade Organisation.

At the time of writing the outcome was not known yet, but during this week the mining industry is meeting with government and trade union organisations with a jointly formulated plan to save jobs and ameliorate the impact of job losses.

On a mostly unrelated front President Jacob Zuma met with representatives of the judiciary, led by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, to defuse the recent tensions between those two arms of state after attacks by members of the executive and other leaders of the ruling party on the judiciary. Judged by the statements from both sides afterwards, the results of the meeting was successful and should go a long way to clear the air.

Earlier there was also the positive development of the appointment of a government task team to look at the impact of new visa regulations, introduced despite prior warnings by the tourism industry.

Fly in the ointment

Part of the answer to the challenges faced by the South African economy due to the changes in the global economic environment, is to diversify its markets and end the over-reliance on trade with China.

On that front it was positive news that Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and a high level delegation, including private sector role players, flew to Japan to promote trade relations with that country. It also illustrated that South Africa will not allow the tensions between China and Japan to prevent it from putting own interest first in relations with either one of them.

But then a fly made its appearance in the ointment when news about the Japan excursion became dominated by the fact that the plane flying the delegation there belonged to a company owned by the Gupta family – a company with a son of President Zuma as director.

Judged on the cold facts, as it became known subsequently, there should not have been any controversy about a private plane being used to get the delegation to Japan. It is something that has happened before, stretching back to before even the present constitutional dispensation.

It appears that the South African Air Force, tasked with securing an appropriate plane for such events used a third party service provider to do the sourcing and acted within the letter of the applicable rules.

The source of public uproar that followed is the history of controversy surrounding the Gupta family and their relationship with the president and his family – from the landing of a private plane at Waterkloof Air Force base, to the bond on the house of one of the president’s wives to lucrative government advertising contracts with a Gupta newspaper.

The lesson

The lesson in all this is encapsulated in age-old proverb: “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion,” meaning the associates of public figures must not even be suspected of wrongdoing.

When in the early 1990s I was appointed as MEC in the old Transvaal provincial administration, I was politely informed that I should resign as a non-executive director of a computer company. The wisdom of that rule became clear some months later when I, from documents of an upcoming meeting discovered that the company was doing business with the provincial administration.

The informal rule for members of the executive to resign from boards of companies was laid down some years earlier by late Prime Minister John Vorster. It came after damaging gossip doing the rounds about the relationship between his predecessor, Dr. Verwoerd, and a particular media house.

President Zuma has allowed himself to become involved in a wide number of controversies and it has become highly contagious. The Japan trip has now illustrated how it is threatening to  contaminate even the man who might succeed him, Deputy President Ramaphosa – if not poisoning the total body politic of the country, undoing much of the good that is also happening.

It has become an issue the ruling ANC should urgently address.

by Piet Coetzer

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