OPINION: Nobody will ever pay for Guptagate scandal. Or anything else
Once upon a time, when South Africa was a more innocent place, a family of the president's best friends landed a plane-full of their guests at a military base, and no one was there to check their passports. In this iteration of South Africa - trusting, loving, in which nary a foreigner had ever been set on fire for speaking funny - the president's friends' friends were the president's friends, and if they wanted to use military sites to park a chartered 737, then so be it. In other realms, this would count as a lasting, damning scandal. Here, everybody walks.
The Gupta wedding, April 2013. In which a chartered aircraft full of rich people touches down at AFB Waterkloof - a military airbase - making a mockery of South African sovereignty. How did the plane get clearance to land? Why was no one there to check passports? The answer, the government insisted, lay with Lieutenant Colonel Stephan van Zyl and Lieutenant Colonel Christine Anderson, along with a conspirator or two, who had seen fit to hand the Guptas the keys to our kingdom. Yesterday, Van Zyl and Anderson were informed there were n o charges against them anymore.
Difficult as it might be, I want you to imagine a real country. By that, I mean a country that takes its military installations seriously, that covets the security of its national key points (if the base is a national key point at all - we still are awaiting the list). Imagine a country in which a military runway is not an asset provided for a price to the president's assets, but rather a place to land military planes. In South Africa, an unreal country, a military runway is just another logistical nightmare for a wedding planner.
You'll probably recall the wedding in question: the nuptials in which Vega Gupta - a niece of the most powerfully connected family in South Africa - was betrothed to Aakash Jahajgarhia at Sun City's Palace of the Lost City. It was, according to the official literature, a "traditional Hindu wedding", which would be entirely accurate if the majority of Hindus blew the GDP of Tamil Nadu on a four-day ceremony at a casino/theme park at the bottom of Africa. The whole thing was quite technical, and appeared to hew to the highest standards of Hindu propriety. Let's see what the press release had to say about the affair:
"The couple dressed in matching red and golden dresses walked towards the exquisite mandap for the final marital rituals, which was performed around havan among sacred recitations of Mantras by the Hindu priests.
"As per traditions, seven vows were made to the life partner and seven pheres (circles) were taken around the mandap-agni.
"The groom then applied vermillion or kumkum to the bride's forehead, welcoming her as his partner for life."
And while this union appeared to be faithful to Hindu marriage rituals, which is to say as close to Hindu religious law as possible, it flouted many of the laws of the land in which it took place. The Guptas - a family that has been instrumental in bankrolling Jacob Zuma's lifestyle and patronage networks (insofar as there's a difference between the two) - faced no obstruction when using a stretch of military tarmac as an extension of their fiefdom.
This was deeply concerning at the time: it suggested that South Africa had a separate set of rules for those with deep connections to the president, and that national key points were less national key points then they were addresses to be engraved on a wedding invitation how-to-get-there-s. It was a genuine scandal that was accorded a suffix - Guptagate! - threatening the viability of the government. In a real country, the president goes down for this kind of thing. Here, a bunch of saps in SAPS, and a few individuals in the armed forces, were said to be responsible for the whole affair.
Regardless, the outrage lasted for about half a second. As the Gupta wedding scandal slithered down the nation's small intestines, the government, like some super probiotic, displayed its expertise at stretching the process of digestion to the point where excretion was merely a sound effect. There was, of course, the small chance that a bunch of nobodies would take the tumble for Zuma and his pals.
Yesterday, that chance all but disappeared. This vapourisation was presaged by a Tweet posted by the South African National Defence Union (Sandu) National Secretary Pikkie Greeff: "Well, well, well. We have an Anderson bomb to drop. Watch out for the media release within the hour." All charges against Lieutenant Colonel Stephan van Zyl and Lieutenant Colonel Christine Anderson have been withdrawn. Greeff then released a more precise statement:
"The military prosecuting authorities have today informed the attorneys of indicted Air Force officers in the Guptagate matter, that all charges are forthwith withdrawn and, therefore, no prosecution will commence against them."
Van Zyl and Anderson, along with Colonel Nomsa Khumalo and Warrant Officer Thabo Ntshisi, were the designated fall guys in the affair, said to have colluded in allowing the flight (or flights - there were rumours of a second aircraft) to touch down at Waterkloof in time for the April 2013 wedding. Close readers will recall that the collusion didn't stop there - many of the wedding guests were spirited from AFB Waterkloof by police escort, a secondary scandal that has yet to be married to any culprits.
Sure, there was a bullshit flap of sorts between the South African authorities and Indian officials, but it was all diplomatic theatre. Where once this sort of thing would have resulted in war, we now understand that the super-rich are above national interests, and get to land their wedding planes wherever they will.
For their part, the Guptas remain completely bummed out by the outrageous over-reaction to what was clearly a non-issue. "It was planned as a destination wedding to tempt other Indian families to use South Africa as a venue instead of going to Mauritius or Thailand," explained spokesman Haranath Ghosh.
"For the record," Ghosh continued, "the family has obtained each and every permission for any and every part of the event. The family was not directly involved in the Waterkloof incident, but have been assured by the Indian high commission that proper process was followed and agreements reached with the appropriate officials in Dirco [Department of International Relations and Co-operation] as would happen in any visit by high profile ministers and dignitaries."
For his part, Sandu Secretary General Greeff is now on the offensive. "Hey Zuma, there is no hiding from a High Court civil law suit subpoena. Are you ready?" asked Greeff, who clearly doesn't plan on joining Cosatu anytime soon. The Sec Gen is planning a civil suit against the government, yet another sideshow that will cost taxpayers money in order to justify the non-fall of the fall guys.
Is there a point to this pointless story? Surely there is. The ANC government has become so expert at dilatory tactics - the investigation into the police escort saga was meant to take seven days, and yet here we are 18 months later - that we as citizens have become experts in forgetting. We are, in the government's conception, a country of amnesiacs. It is their job to drag out a scandal long past its best-buy date, long past the point that it has curdled on the shelf. And it is our job to forget.
While apartheid's apologists demand that we ignore the past and move on, the government's apologists demand that we forget the present and _move forward _- and we end up with a country that cycles through time and space in nanosecond micro-blasts, a nowhere place in which justice is impossible, because injustice cannot be tied to history. Everybody walks. No one does time. There is no time.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.