Gupta-leaks raise the stakes

The full implications of the #GuptaLeaks e-mails have yet to sink in. In part, this is because the vast majority of the information these e-mails contain has yet to be released publicly. What has been released is so overwhelming in its scope and in the almost inconceivable audacity of the actions it records that a punch-drunk public has premature leak fatigue.

For the implicated politicians and officials — and presumably for members of the Gupta family, their employees and agents — a vision of two quite different futures has begun to crystallise.


In one scenario, the beneficiaries of public resource diversion will retire gracefully to a gold-plated condominium in the deserts of Dubai. It will now be equally easy to summon up a second vision, in which many of those who committed misdemeanours face public humiliation and prosecution.

In the past, creative entrepreneurs and politicians could ensure
they did not leave a trail of evidence. They could employ eraser software to overwrite the hard drives on their computers. Just to be on the safe side, they could head down to the hardware store and purchase a pair of safety glasses, a drill and a heavy hammer. So equipped, they could drill through their hard drive platters before pulverising them into small fragments.

The trouble with e-mails, however, is that they are not stored on a hard drive. A copy of every message is sent to the recipient’s e-mail server. Once there, it has moved beyond the control of its author. Although software contains “undo” or “recall” features and recipients can be asked to delete the e-mails, these are superficial fixes. The original e-mails and attempts to retract them will remain accessible to determined and skilled investigators and prosecutors.

The recent house-buying spree in Dubai indicates that the most senior likely suspects anticipate their time might eventually run out. But recourse to emigration is limited to a very few people at the top.

Most alleged miscreants enjoy protection that is primarily political. We live in a world of selective investigations and prosecutions. Given the depletion of capacity in the Hawks, and to a lesser degree in the National Prosecuting Authority, the prospect of punishment will continue to be selective in any plausible future.

In a world before #GuptaLeaks, an inconclusive commission of inquiry into state capture might conceivably have been commissioned, board members and officials could have moved sideways and wealthy politicians could have quietly retired.

But the Gupta e-mails place a select group of individuals, who allegedly benefited from state capture, in a position of permanent vulnerability. It suddenly matters much more to them than before that the levers of state power are not lost to political adversaries.

The elective conference the ANC is due to hold in December is probably going to be a close call. The Dlamini-Gupta-Zuma slate is severely disadvantaged by the disastrous choice of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as its figurehead and by the jostling of the small fry of the Premier League for positions they are not qualified to hold.

If it seems they are going to lose, a variety of compromised politicians and entrepreneurs may feel themselves cornered. They may believe they have no option but to create conditions on the ground that will lead to the conference being postponed.

  • Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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