OPINION: Alliance? SACP vs Guptas is SACP vs Zuma
Over the weekend a senior South African Communist Party ( SACP) official said, on the record, that the party wanted a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate the alleged corporate capture of our politics. That may sound like something the SACP would be very interested in, and it could be very important. But what makes it fascinating is that they are in the same breath targeting the most toxic surname in our political lexicon. Gupta. They want this commission to investigate the Guptas, to establish what role they play in our politics, and whether they are in fact influencing decisions made by state institutions. It also seems unavoidable that this is about President Jacob Zuma. The SACP is turning.
The SACP's second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila is a rare example in our politics of someone who doesn't shout to get attention. He is quiet, almost unassuming, and always friendly. Even when bothered by pesky journalists, he doesn't get annoyed, he just sticks to his line and usually smiles as he does it. He has also never been accused of any kind of wrong-doing or corruption. Is he someone who should be respected, no matter what your politics? Definitely.
So it's interesting that he is the man putting his name to the call from within the SACP to investigate the Guptas. He is the most senior member of the SACP not in government, which probably explains it. But it's not some sort of test balloon idea that can be dialled back either. This is clearly pushed on behalf of the party.
Mapaila's case for this Gupta commission is quiet strong. He told 702's Redi Thlabi on Monday morning that while you expect some kind of proximity to power by corporations, the Guptas were going too far. He, in particular, is annoyed by the role played by Duduzane Zuma. How can it be, he asks, that the son of the president is enriching himself through contracts with state institutions? Mapaila says you don't have "to be a rocket scientist" to understand how the "lines of influence work" when the president's son is a part of companies that either seek government business, or go through government's regulatory agencies.
He steps back from mentioning examples, but one springs immediately to mind. There is the trip by Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane to Switzerland last year, which has been confirmed by his spokesperson. That trip occurred just as the Gupta family were dealing with Glencore about the sale of the Optimum Mine, whose coal was pronounced substandard by Eskom, only to be rehabilitated once Guptas took ownership. On Monday the news agency Bloomberg said Duduzane Zuma had only bought into the company that ended up having a big slice of that deal three weeks before it went through. At the same time, the Democratic Alliance has claimed that the government put regulatory pressure on Glencore just as all of this was happening. Glencore has denied this.
It is the perfect illustration of what Mapaila is saying.
So, now the SACP seems to be taking aim at the Gupta family. It would seem they're almost following Julius Malema's example. If you want to hurt President Jacob Zuma, you can do that through the Guptas. This has been some time in coming though. The SACP and the ANC Youth League have been at each other's throats for several months, and the league seems to back Zuma in everything, so already we knew there was trouble in alliance paradise.
Political analyst Professor Tinyiko Maluleke has suggested this may also be about something else. He suggests that as Zuma's term in office comes to an end, there may be a desire among the SACP not to be seen as "collaborationists" in Zuma's regime; that they may be thinking of their place in history, and may also be preparing to almost campaign against his record. Of course, this has happened before, when the ANC almost campaigned against Thabo Mbeki's record in 2009. There is now not a single ANC leader who will say publicly they supported Mbeki's Aids policies, even if they were all in the same room with him at the time. Including one JG Zuma, who of course was then ANC deputy president.
This theory also fits another suggestion that seems to be almost universally accepted at the moment, which is that it is unlikely the SACP would be doing this if Zuma was as strong as he was a year ago. It is surely another indication of the weakness of his position that this kind of thing is happening. If you were the US or the USSR during the Cold War, after Cuba, you only made a move if you were certain it wouldn't start World War III. The SACP is doing this against the Gupta family because they know it's safe, that Zuma won't take action against them, because he can't any more.
The SACP's action is also another indication of the vulnerabilities Zuma has created for himself. If he did not need the Gupta's money (or friendship, to give it a more charitable meaning), then the SACP, or anyone else, would not be able to use this against him. It's hard not to see this development as a self-inflicted wound by Zuma.
The Gupta family itself gives a very careful reaction. It says it would welcome "any process that will end the wild speculation around our dealings with government". They also say "we are yet to be provided by anyone of any evidence of wrongdoing that goes beyond innuendo and gossip".
It's not everyone that welcomes judicial commissions about themselves, so this is probably a first. But it's the kind of reaction you can give when you know that only one man has the power to appoint those commissions, and he's not going to do it while you are bankrolling him.
There are so many echoes of the end of the Mbeki era here. While Zuma doesn't have the Aids issue that Mbeki did (corruption hurts, but it doesn't kill people as Mbeki's policies did), his weaknesses are now coming to haunt him. In 2007 the SACP played a leading role in starting the campaign, giving it momentum, and in the end backed the winning person in Zuma. One wonders if they've decided to do the same again.
And one also wonders: how damaging to the party, and the country, will this feud be?
Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for _ Eyewitness News _ and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes