Playing with fire

2011-03-15 00:00

PERHAPS their biggest mistake was mixing business with politics. The phrase "never mix business with politics" was not coined for nothing.

On that note, I am reminded of the famous Gupta brothers Atul, Ajay and Rajesh, the Indian businessmen who have taken South Africa by storm.

I must say, I don't know if the Gupta brothers are South Africa's "colonisers", which they are increasingly getting a reputation for. But there's one thing I know: the Guptas had better be careful.

Let me pause right here.

I hold no brief. I am not their friend and I am not their enemy. I also do not know them personally. But I know a lot is being said about them in senior intelligentsia circles — and it is not complimentary.

So, that story about the Guptas in the Sunday Times a few days ago came as no surprise at all.

It must be noted, however, that the negative story about them must have served as a wake-up call. They went on a major public- relations campaign (crisis-management mode) denying the allegations. But you see it does not really matter because the perception is widespread. The funny thing about perceptions is that they always seem real even if they are not.

Besides, the Sunday Times piece is too detailed, and denying it would make anyone look silly.

According to allegations in the Sunday Times, the Guptas have so immersed themselves in South African politics that "members of top ANC leadership structures, the National Working Committee [NWC] and the top six party officials recently raised concerns about senior appointments that were made in government and at parastatals with the deployment committee being sidelined".

The article says the Guptas' role in influencing the appointments of CEOs and chairpeople in key state enterprises was recently raised at an NWC meeting and would be formally discussed at its next gathering. "The concern is that these people now have the influence in the appointment of CEOs and chair[people] of state enterprises which then means the ANC has lost its way and influence in those crucial decisions.

"They can't be allowed to plunge the country into crisis because we defeated money in Polokwane."

Then, at the recent top six meeting, deployment committee members revealed that new Transnet CEO Brian Molefe, believed to be favoured by the Guptas, had been appointed by cabinet without their say.

"The Gupta brothers are said to be wielding so much power that they often summon cabinet ministers and government officials to their family compound in Saxonwold, Johannesburg."

According to the Sunday Times, the Guptas telephoned at least three deputy ministers and told them that they were to be promoted days before Zuma announced his cabinet reshuffle.

They phoned several ministers to assure them that their jobs were secure ahead of Zuma's announcement.

They tried to impose one of their personal assistants as an ANC candidate for Johannesburg's Ward 117, which includes the suburbs of Saxonwold and Parkhurst.

They bragged about their influence, telling one ANC premier he was fortunate that they went to his office to see him as many other officials had to meet them at their home.

This is very scary.

I know there are things that are taboo to discuss publicly in this country. But I have one thing to say about this. Government administrations come and go. That's why it is very dangerous to mix business and politics.

One thing is guaranteed: like all administrations, the current administration will go one day. Then what happens?

Remember the Russian oligarchs who enjoyed a cult-like status during Boris Yeltsin's presidency? Where are some of them now and why? Remember that multibillion-dollar enterprise, the Yukos Oil Company? What happened to it? The former owner is rotting in a Siberian jail, my friends. Other oligarchs were sent packing by Vladimir Putin. They are scattered all over the world. Why? Because they mixed business with politics.

In a nutshell, I am warning that the backlash against the Guptas might be heavier and nastier than they might have thought. There are extremely vindictive people in this country. These people also have long memories. They are sitting on the sidelines rubbing their hands in glee.

Mark my words.


• Sipho Ngcobo is former deputy editor of Business Report and ex-managing editor of Enterprise Magazine. He has written for the Sunday Times, the World Paper in Boston and was employed by the New York Times Group in the U.S. between 1989 and 1991.

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