The Guptas and Ruperts compared from the SACP point of view

African Communist editorial says the Indian family has been entirely parasitic when it comes to wealth accumulation

Red Alert

The Guptas aren't the only threat to our National Democratic Revolution – just the most obvious, immediate problematic

6 April 2016

A week in politics, as they say, can be a very long time indeed. At the end of February, in its Political Report to the Central Committee (published in this edition of The African Communist), the national secretariat of the Party focused on the dangers of corporate capture of the state. The report identified the Gupta family as a particularly dangerous, although not the only, threat in this regard. The political report went on to say: “It is time now that the SACP and the rest of the working class speak out more forcefully against these parasites.”

That was just a few weeks ago. At that point in time, the SACP was more or less alone from within the ANC-led Alliance in publicly condemning the activities of the Gupta family. This was a few weeks before Cde Mcebisi Jonas, Deputy Finance Minister, confirmed that he had been approached by members of the Gupta family in their incessant meddling endeavours in the appointment (and demotion) of Cabinet ministers. And it was a few more weeks before the ANC’s National Executive Committee finally decided to investigate the role of the Guptas.

Of course, this was not the first time that the SACP had raised the alarm around the role and influence of the Gupta family. At May Day 2013 rallies throughout South Africa, SACP speakers (and at least one ANC speaker, secretary general, Cde Gwede Mantashe) roundly condemned the shameful landing of Gupta wedding guests at the Waterkloof airbase the day before.  We called for an investigation into the circumstances. SACP speakers warned of South Africa being turned into a banana republic. More recently, on behalf of the SACP leadership collective, our Deputy General Secretary, Cde Solly Mapaila has led the way in speaking out about the Guptas. 

The SACP’s role in all of this has, of course, not pleased everyone. Irvin Jim, in aDaily Maverick “Opinionista” column, spends more time attacking Cde Mapaila than the ostensible targets of his intervention - state corruption and “white monopoly capital”. Jim, with all of his vanguardist ambitions, is clearly miffed that he is a peripheral voice in this critical struggle. He has only himself to blame. Jim has marginalised himself because, unlike the SACP, he has failed to understand that, with all of its risks, the trajectory and contested future of our struggle will still have to be determined to a considerable extent, one way or another, from within the state and from within the ANC and the Alliance it leads. Jim has walked away from that responsibility.

The basic line of polemic pursued by Jim is to argue that the Guptas are a distraction from the “real” corporate capture of the state by “white monopoly capital” (would “black” monopoly capital, whatever that might mean, be okay?). In this, ironically, Jim is not very far from the counter-offensive strategy waged by the Gupta-controlled media (The New Age and ANN7). Hired gun Andile Mngxitama, writing in The New Age, for instance, portrays the attack on the Guptas as a “story hatched by the global white capital propaganda machine”. Regular New Agecontributor, Pinky Khoabane, argues, in effect, in several columns that if you think the Guptas are bad what about Johann Rupert and his mega-rich clan? It was Khoabane who wrongly claimed (she has since back-tracked somewhat) that Rupert flew out from London to meet with Deputy President, Cde Cyril Ramaphosa in December to “instruct” the state to hire Cde Pravin Gordhan as Finance Minister.

In responding to Jim, Mngxitama, Khoabane and others, it is useful to note that the SACP, in defence of our democratic national sovereignty and in the face of the dangers of corporate capture, has not focused exclusively on the Guptas. Take the February Central Committee political report for instance. Readers will note that, while several paragraphs are certainly directed against the Gupta family, the Rupert family, the Oppenheimer family, and Koos Bekker’s Naspers-Media 24-Multichoice empire are all critically flagged.

At the same time, we need to analyse more accurately and strategically the different and complex ways in which capital and its agents (shareholders, CEOs, fund managers, ratings agencies, the IMF and World Bank, neo-liberal ideological high priests, and their diverse lackeys and hangers-on) might undermine the democratic mandate of the post-apartheid South African state. Simply treating corporate capture as a monolithic “plot hatched by global (white) capital”, or, conversely, as the doings of the Gupta clan, leaves us strategically and tactically disarmed. We are not about to abolish capitalism globally, and simply dealing with the Guptas won’t make our challenges miraculously disappear.

An effective anti-capitalist, and therefore an effective anti-corporate capture strategy, needs to understand the terrain much more accurately. Obviously there is not the space in this brief editorial note to undertake a comprehensive analysis. But here are some pointers. In the first place, it is important to recognise that, while they will all be hostile to the SACP, the working class, a radical national democratic revolution and socialism, the Guptas, Bekkers, Ruperts and Oppenheimers have different and in some respects conflicting agendas.

 Johann Rupert’s extensive business empire was inherited largely from his father Anton, a Broederbonder and at one time the National Party Cape Province’s favoured replacement for Verwoerd as apartheid prime minister. The Rupert empire is centred on two major corporations that emerged from the South African tobacco giant, Rembrandt–Remgro and Richemont. Remgro is an investment company headquartered in Stellenbosch with interests in finance, mining and industry.

Richemont is a Swiss-based luxury goods company. The Rupert business empire embraces hundreds of companies in 35 countries and on six continents. It is an empire that does not depend on South African government tenders.  Johann Rupert can leave the schmoozing of ministers to others. He can leave the bullying of the South African government, the heavy lifting to “market sentiment”, to the ratings agencies, while he enjoys a weekly family meal at the Ruperts-only reserved table in his favourite Stellenbosch restaurant when he is not on holiday in one of the family’s properties in the Seychelles or in Onrus.

Koos Bekker’s personal trajectory has both similar and distinct features. Like the Rupert empire, Bekker’s current empire was based on Afrikaner capital accumulation – in the case of Naspers dating back to 1914. Several directors and editors in Naspers were prominent apartheid-era politicians, including DF Malan, Hendrik Verwoerd and PW Botha.

As the NP’s favoured newspaper and school textbook publisher, the company benefited extensively after the NP’s accession to power in 1948. Bekker’s own involvement in Naspers came in 1985 when, as a young post-graduate, he helped launch MNet, one of the first two pay TV services anywhere in the world. Most of the funding came from Naspers. Like the Rupert empire, Naspers-News24 is a multi-national. It operates in 130 countries, and it is listed on the JSE and in London. A major investment and money-spinner has been the Chinese-based media and entertainment company, Tencent in which Naspers has a 34% holding.

However, unlike Johann Rupert who operates in a somewhat aloof if not downright disdainful manner towards the post-apartheid ANC-led government, Bekker’s Naspers South African media have other requirements. They are active within highly regulated sectors and there have been constant interventions from these corporate quarters to influence and suborn ANC MPs and government officials.

As numerous SACP statements have indicated, Naspers-Media 24 has, with the connivance of some ANC politicians and the current leadership of the SABC, subverted and undermined the public mandate and responsibilities of what is meant to be our public broadcaster. The much-delayed digital conversion also has everything to do with Naspers-Media 24 interference and partial state capture.

By contrast with both the Ruperts and Bekkers, the Gupta family, arriving in South Africa in the mid-1990s, has been entirely parasitic for their wealth accumulation on corrupting parts of the post-apartheid state. In particular, they have targeted key parastatals, among them Eskom, Transnet, Denel and SAA, as well as provincial governments. 

The Ruperts and Bekkers, part of the so-called Stellenbosch mafia, appear to have some degree of commitment to South Africa, presumably both for wealth preservation and sentimental cultural reasons. (Rupert is reported to have cancelled all Richemont advertising in an overseas publication that once crassly described Afrikaans as “the ugliest language in the world”.)  The Ruperts and Bekkers repatriate some of their considerable global earnings back into South Africa. By contrast, the Gupta family is reputed to be shipping its ill-acquired wealth post-haste out of the country to Dubai in anticipation of a loss of political influence in the near-term.

A greater attachment to South Africa does not mean that Rupert and Bekker are “good capitalists” while the Guptas are “bad capitalists”. Nor does the difference between a Remgro and a Naspers make Johann Rupert a nicer capitalist than Koos Bekker. Capitalism itself, however innovative, dynamic and durable it can sometimes be, is a thoroughly exploitative system, and, in civilizational and ecological terms, it is unsustainable. The SACP is not alone in recognising this reality: the current head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, for instance, is outspoken in his recognition of this fact.

For the SACP it is not the Ruperts, or the Bekkers, or the Guptas, but capitalism as a global system that constitutes our principal and formidable strategic challenge. But how to deal with it? How do we safeguard our hard-won democracy? How do we defend our electoral mandate? How do we roll back the profit-maximising agenda of capital? What tactical and strategic programmes do we undertake?

Again, within the confines of an Editorial Note we can only indicate some issues in broad brush-strokes. So let’s take one topical area. If we are to advance a second radical phase of the national democratic revolution, as we surely must, we require among other things a strategically disciplined, professional National Treasury and South African Revenue Service (SARS).

The Guptas’ smash-and-grab, parasitic agenda has no such interest. A National Treasury that blows the whistle on the squandering of public resources on corrupt tenders, or that asks rational questions about a mega nuclear build programme, or a SARS that probes high income earners, are all anathema to the Guptas.

By contrast, the Ruperts and Bekkers for both sentimental and wealth preservation reasons, would like to see an effective Treasury and SARS capable of staving off a South African economic meltdown.  But for them and much of the rest of South African monopoly capital, a strategically disciplined and professional Treasury and SARS would be institutions that essentially imposed a neo-liberal, investor friendly macro-economic policy programme that continued to lock South Africa into its semi-peripheral global positioning within the wider imperialist value chain.

Against the parasitic agenda of the Guptas and others, the SACP supports the defence of a strong and professionally effective Treasury and SARS, but the strategic discipline we have in mind is radically different from that of the Ruperts and Bekkers. We recognise the imperative for macro-economic, monetary and fiscal strategic discipline and professionalism in support of a radical second phase of the NDR.

This includes macro-economic policy aligned to re-industrialisation, a major state-led infrastructure spend programme, job creation and sustainable social redistribution. In short, we require an effective Treasury and SARS, along with development finance institutions, which form important pillars of a democratic, developmental state. This is the only way that we can begin to roll back the neo-liberal agenda of the Ruperts and Bekkers. But the very state and parastatal instruments required for this developmental agenda are the ones that are actively and wilfully eroded by the Gupta agenda.

In short, exposing and putting an end to the parasitism of the Guptas and others like them is not a diversion from confronting monopoly capital as personified by the Ruperts and the Bekkers. Defeating parasitism is essential to confronting monopoly capital and advancing, deepening and defending our national democratic revolution.     

This article appeared as an editorial in the African Communist. It subsequently appeared in Umsebenzi Online, the online journal of the SACP