Paid-for racism: SA democracy shows its teeth

AtulGuptaBellPottinger

Sabotaging South Africa’s non-racial dream: Atul Gupta, a member of the family accused of looting state coffers and controlling President Zuma’s government for their own enrichment, has been helped by London PR firm Bell Pottinger to stoke racial tensions in the country

WHILE it seems incredible that in a racially charged society like ours someone would purposely stoke black-white tensions, for enough money some people will do anything. The London-based public relations firm Bell Pottinger (BP) has done that for a fee of about $170,000 a month: it fashioned racially divisive slogans, speeches and activities for the mafia network of President Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family, to divert South Africans’ attention so they could continue looting state coffers behind the smokescreen.

This perilous ethnic baiting is familiar to Jewish ears. For centuries, when they were on good terms with their gentile neighbours, they suddenly heard someone say: “Jews are vermin and Christ-killers.” The Holocaust is the most blatant example of the violence that followed, but there are others. It also happened in Rwanda in 1994 when Tutsis were called “cockroaches” as part of a campaign of delegitimisation, and some 800 000 were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbours.

It boggles the mind that so soon after Mandela’s rainbow-nation dream seemed within reach – South Africa’s black-white relations have improved, despite huge problems – someone should purposely undermine it by dredging up racist hatred from colonialism and apartheid.

Hired by the Gupta family in 2016, BP has advised them and their associates about how to protect their image. Attacks on their pervasive corruption were blamed on “white monopoly capital” and other populist slogans which resonated with the angry masses. White journalists who criticised them were called racists and threatened by groups such as Black First Land First, reportedly funded by the Guptas and tutored by BP.

In the past, BP has helped shine the images of dictators such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile and oppressive regimes in Belarus, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Then it saw an opportunity in South Africa and grabbed it.

It may seem inappropriate in this gloomy atmosphere to drink a toast to ourselves. But we should. Because although the war to rescue the country from the Guptas and Zumas and their henchmen has not yet been fully won, there have been significant partial victories.

After being exposed, BP has crawled on its knees and publically apologised, admitting to unethical tactics and expressing “profound regret.” Its apology is clearly insufficient and reflects only the tip of the iceberg. The saga should be used to expose other saboteurs of South Africa’s vision and force them to make amends.

When foreigners come visiting, their local hosts tell them things look bleak. A corrupt president clings to power, a foreign family pulls government strings, the economy is plunging, violence is rising, whites feel like a threatened minority, and so on. The old question, “should I stay or go?” hangs in the air. Many have left the country; more would leave if they had the resources.

Yet if the foreign visitor was Canadian and had read last Friday’s Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto, he might have a more positive view. The paper described the “humbling” by the country of Bell Pottinger which had “met its match in the free-wheeling democracy of South Africa” with its “vibrant media and civil-society sector.”

The positive angle has lots of truth in it. Widespread public outrage and action in civil society and some parts of government are rising sharply as more evidence of the Zuma-Gupta contagion emerges. And although the scary spectre of the country sliding towards a Zimbabwe-style kleptocracy has seemed less outlandish recently than it once did, South Africans are not passive Zimbabweans and will not let it happen.

Hopefully, one day visitors from abroad will toast the success of this wonderful country with South Africans and celebrate the vanquishing of criminals such as the Zumas and Guptas and their enablers, BP.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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J’Accuse! – No-one can say we did not know

 

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Is it safe to be a journalist in SA today? A Black First Land First member confronts journalist Peter Bruce outside his Johannesburg home last week for his stories criticising corruption and the Gupta family

A FAMOUS example of a journalist bravely speaking truth to power, regardless of personal consequences, comes from Jewish history in 1898, when French writer Emile Zola (a non-Jew), published a front page open letter in the paper L’Aurore to the French President headlined “J’Accuse…!” (In English: “I accuse…! Letter to the President of the Republic”). It was about the notorious Dreyfus affair, and became a benchmark for journalistic daring towards people in high office.

A Jewish officer in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus was accused of selling military secrets to the Germans, convicted of treason and jailed, though there was no direct evidence. Zola risked his career by accusing the army of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism. He wanted a libel case to be opened against him so evidence disproving Dreyfus’ guilt would be made public. The case divided France bitterly between the army and Catholic Church, and liberal society.

Zola was tried and convicted for criminal libel. He fled to England, saying: “The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it.” In 1906, the Supreme Court exonerated Dreyfus. Zola’s 1898 article marked a significant journalistic victory.

In South Africa today, the thousands of leaked Gupta-family emails incriminating public officials in self-enriching sleaze are a foundation for the “J’Accuse” of this country. It comes amidst growing intimidation of journalists.

Last week Suna Venter (32), an SABC journalist fired for resisting censorship at the public broadcaster died. She had been harassed, shot with a pellet gun, threatened by phone and assaulted. Her car’s tyres were slashed and brake cables cut, and her flat broken into. She was diagnosed with “Broken Heart Syndrome”, a cardiac condition from stress which weakens heart muscles.

And also last week, the group Black First Land First (BLF) – a mob of black fascists parading as ‘activists’ with reported links to the Gupta family – harassed respected journalist Peter Bruce outside his home, and published a list of white journalists they would target, including the country’s finest: Peter Bruce, Sam Sole, Adriaan Basson, Stephen Grootes, Max du Preez, Barry Bateman and Alec Hogg. All were critical of the Zuma government and links to the Guptas. BLF also said “black” journalists such as Ferial Haffajee, Karima Brown and Eusebius McKaiser who mimic these “white agents of white monopoly capital… must repent, ask for forgiveness from black people for being used by white monopoly capital.”

South Africa has a short tradition of democracy. Its young plant of freedom could still be uprooted. One does not need a long memory to recall apartheid, when journalists took extreme personal risks to write truthfully about the goings-on. One well-known example was Ruth First – wife of underground activist Joe Slovo – who was murdered in exile by apartheid forces in 1982 by means of a parcel bomb.

Fortunately, the freedom struggle is sufficiently recent so many who fought it are still around. They will not go quietly into the night. And younger journalists are coming up unafraid to tell the truth, at personal risk.

ANC bigwigs say “irresponsible” journalists badmouth people in authority unjustly. In Jewish terminology, they accuse the media of lashon hara – malicious gossip-mongering. A Yiddish parable likens gossip to taking a feather mattress up a mountain and cutting it open: the feathers, like loose talk, fly in the wind and cannot be pulled back. This is doubly apt in the Twitter age.

In our current political context the concept must be inverted. The feathers from the leaked Gupta emails being released are grains of truth. Bluster and arrogance from the ANC cannot pull them back. In South Africa today, we can no longer say we did not know about the corruption and lies. The question is: what will we do about it?

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Fierce journalism takes on the mafia state

Lansky and Zuma

Where do gangsters go when the law comes after them and they run out of options? American mobster Meyer Lansky tried to flee to Israel. President Jacob Zuma, after turning South Africa into a mafia state, may look northwards to Dubai

IS ESCAPE possible for President Jacob Zuma from the mafia state he has created with the Guptas in South Africa? If he flees to the Dubai mansion he reportedly owns to evade prosecution for corruption – as some people predict – he will probably be allowed in. But high-profile crooks don’t always find refuge. A famous case is American Mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky who tried immigrating to Israel under the Law of Return.

Lansky and ‘Bugsy’ Siegel were central 20th century Jewish mobsters, involved in bootlegging, extortion, murder and gambling. They helped build the National Crime Syndicate in the 1930s and ‘40s, a partnership between Italian and Jewish organised crime. Founding members included Al Capone, Frank Costello and Dutch Schultz. As a Jew, Lansky couldn’t be part of the Italian-American Mafia, but worked with members such as Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Police and government officials were routinely bribed.

During World War Two, in 1941, Luciano was imprisoned for racketeering. Lansky helped free him through a deal with the government: The New York Mafia, which controlled docks and shipyards, would report and thwart suspected Nazi sabotage.

In 1970 the government charged Lansky for tax evasion. In 1972, he sought to immigrate to Israel under its Law of Return, but his application was denied because of his criminal past. Israel said the Law of Return doesn’t apply to Jews with criminal histories.

It might seem extreme to compare Zuma and the Guptas to American mobsters. But excellent investigative journalism by amaBhungane and Daily Maverick’s new unit Scorpio, which has exposed South Africa’s mafia state through 100 000 to 200 000 leaked emails, shows the Guptas run the country at the highest level. The harm done to the population and economy by their looting is just as criminal, even if blood is not spilt in quite the same way.

The journalists say they have carefully protected whistle-blowers, stressing: “This information is both too dangerous and too important not to share.”

This South African mafia may yet act against journalists through intimidation and violence. They have attempted control of media. In January 2016 the Guptas considered buying the Mail & Guardian, an avid critic, to add to their puppet outlets, television channel ANN7 and The New Age paper. Former chief executive of Gupta company Oakbay, Nazeem Howa, said in an email to one of the Guptas, “[The M&G claims that Zuma] is corrupt and should be relieved of his responsibility” and that the family has become “pawns in their strategy to unseat the President.”

South Africa’s strong civil society is increasingly opposing state capture, but is fragmented. The Zuma-Gupta mafia state, however – just like Lansky’s erstwhile American mobster network – is sharply focused. Zuma is like a wounded animal and his fightback will be dirty. “You don’t want to see the real Jacob Zuma” he reportedly said during an outburst at the recent NEC meeting of the ANC, threatening members not to “push me too far”.

Real journalism – the hard slog of uncovering and checking facts, and balanced reporting – is a craft, not a science. Skillful as its practitioners may be, crooks will exploit rough edges to protect themselves. Zuma already claims to be victim to a media campaign.

We are justified in being despondent about South Africa’s situation. But we must celebrate its independent, aggressive media.

Veteran Italian journalist Vittorio Zucconi of the Italian newspaper La Republica wrote about how Italy’s government tried in vain to sanitise the media for its nefarious ends after World War Two. But information is like water, he said: “You can try and channel and contain it as much as you want, but unless you find a way to dry it up entirely, it will find its way through the cracks.”

The South African mafia can’t plug those cracks. Dubai may be their only escape.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Guptagate: Beware the ethnic slippery slope

Ajay and Atul Gupta 2

Ajay and Atul Gupta, brothers of Indian origin, are accused of major corruption, including ‘buying’ and manipulating numerous SA government officials including President Jacob Zuma, leading to fingers being pointed at their ethnicity – a dangerous thing in race-obsessed South Africa

Wily politicians are adept at turning popular frustration about poverty and social ills against convenient targets to suit their aims. What might happen if rage against the Gupta business family for their “state capture” – in the form of the “buying” and manipulating of numerous government officials for their financial gain – were to take on a broad anti-Indian tone?

There have already been negative public references to the Gupta’s origins, demands that they “go back to India”, and politicians like Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema saying decisions about the country should not be made over a “bowl of curry”. One even hears ordinary South Africans of Indian descent being crassly described as “Guptas”. Comments about the country being run from the family’s palatial estate in the posh neighbourhood of Saxonwold, Johannesburg, evoke deep resentment. In a race-obsessed country like South Africa, this is fertile territory for an explosion of racial attacks.

Jews know the dangers of this from their own history – how a few Jews’ actions were exploited in different places by anti-Semites to condemn entire Jewish communities, regardless of their contributions and integration into society. Hitler’s blaming of Jews for Germany’s troubles to serve his sinister political ends, are one example among many – with catastrophic consequences.

Ethnic tensions simmer in this country amongst all groups. It doesn’t take much, for example, to ignite xenophobic violence by local Africans against Somalis, Malawians and other “foreign nationals” running businesses in townships who are perceived to be succeeding where they have failed. The iconic image of 35 year old Mozambican Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave’s gruesome death in 2008 in Ramaphosa township on the East Rand after he was set alight by a mob, provides an example of what happens when you go down that road.

The Guptas are the symptoms of our sick political culture, not the cause. In every country, business tries to influence politicians. Successful nations like the United States flourish through the interaction of government and the myriad businesses which create wealth and jobs and pay taxes. Businesses invest money where government policies are to their liking, and naturally try to influence things in this direction.

There is nothing wrong with that, as long as the political system has adequate safeguards to prevent corruption, and that those who break the law are punished.

Sadly, South Africa’s political system, despite our fine constitution and our institutions tasked with safeguarding democracy, has failed spectacularly in protecting the society. Bribery and corruption have become the norm. What a terrible disappointment, after the idealism to which Mandela’s generation inspired us not that long ago.

Making money through business should dovetail with a concern for the national good. Business leaders – Jewish businessmen among them – should be outspoken about the betterment of the society being the ultimate goal, and follow it up with concrete actions. We are indebted to those that already do – and there are many who give huge energy and funds to social causes.

South Africans’ outrage should be directed at the African National Congress and its leaders who succumbed to the Guptas’ temptations and demands, and used their positions to accumulate personal wealth and power. The Gupta family’s crass power-mongering for the sake of their own pockets, with no guiding vision for making a better country, evokes disgust. But the mafia they have created contains an entire network of government operatives, including the country’s president, Jacob Zuma, who has abrogated any sense of civic duty. Sadly, even after Zuma is hounded out of office – which hopefully will happen as soon as possible – the system of patronage he created will take far longer to dismantle.

Talk at Jewish dinner tables about Guptagate these days often includes the comment: “Thank God they are not Jewish”, showing Jews’ inherent insecurity. If the Gupta affair were to turn into a racial question, Jews might not be far behind as a convenient target for politicians to camouflage their own failures.

No particular ethnic group is responsible for South Africa’s ills, nor for its achievements. South Africans of Indian descent have long since paid their dues in the struggle against apartheid and other areas. Their South Africanness is as solid as anyone else’s; the Guptas’ shenanigans cannot sully this.

As Guptagate unfolds week after week like a soap opera with new, shocking revelations about their tentacles which reach into the innermost corridors of power, it serves as an urgent wake-up call for South Africans. The fact that the ANC as a liberation movement led the anti-apartheid struggle and became the key player in establishing democracy, doesn’t protect it from corrupt behaviour in its own ranks, including from its own president.

Indeed, the rot runs so deep in the ANC today that one wonders whether it is now the country’s biggest problem rather than its saviour.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email geoffs@icon.co.za)