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)