In Depth

GuptaLeaks: Who are 'the most hated family in South Africa?'

Race war claim is the latest scandal to hit family accused of usurping South African democracy

A scandal involving a PR campaign which allegedly stoked racial tensions in South Africa has put one of the country’s wealthiest and most politically connected families under fresh media scrutiny.

The Gupta family hired British PR firm Bell Pottinger in early 2016 after their sprawling business empire was implicated in political corruption and cronyism involving President Jacob Zuma’s administration.

Bell Pottinger have now been expelled from the UK’s largest PR trade body, the Public Relations and Communications Association, (PRCA) over their campaign, which demonised opposition to Guptas and Zuma as the work of a “white monopoly capital”.

The PRCA concluded that the so-called “economic emancipation” campaign was “by any reasonable standard of judgment likely to inflame racial discord”.

PRCA boss Francis Ingham told the Financial Times that the campaign was the “most blatant instance of unethical PR practice I’ve ever seen” and “has set back South Africa by possibly ten years”.

So who are the family behind the scandal which has invoked the wrath of a nation?

Who are the Gupta family?

Originally from Uttar Pradesh, India, Atul Gupta arrived in South Africa in 1993, in the febrile days leading up to the country’s first post-apartheid elections.

Joined by brothers Ajay and Rajesh, Atul launched a business empire which began in computing and expanded into South Africa’s lucrative mining industry. Their empire now extends into almost every corner of the economy, from arms manufacturing to the media.

But it is their intimate connection with President Zuma which has made them the “most hated family in South Africa,” journalist Micah Reddy told the BBC.

In recent years, scandal-scarred Zuma - who scraped through an eighth vote of no confidence in August - has become increasingly reliant on the family’s considerable influence to cling onto power.

The supposed symbiotic relationship between Zuma and the Guptas even has even been given the nickname “Zupta” by opposition politicians.

Do they control South Africa?

Critics say the Guptas’ political reach goes beyond the acceptable bounds of corporate lobbying and into what they call “state capture” - a level of corruption and cronyism amounting to a de facto takeover of the institutions of state by commercial interests.

In November 2016, South Africa’s corruption ombudsman, the Office of the Public Protector, released a 355-page report into the relationship between Zuma and the Gupta empire entitled ‘State of Capture’ which presented the findings of its investigation.

The damning report found evidence that government ministers had repeatedly colluded with Gupta associates to secure them lucrative contracts, and that the Guptas had influenced the firings of ministers seen as non-compliant, Quartz reports.

In March 2016, Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas came forward to claim that the Guptas had offered to promote him to Finance Minister in exchange for his compliance with their interests. A former ANC lawmaker, Vytjie Mentor, also broke ranks with a similar allegation.

The Gupta brothers strenuously deny both claims, but to critics they were proof that the family is buying and selling politicians in an unabashed usurpation of democracy.

Since then, online news site AmaBhungane has released more than 100,000 leaked emails which, if genuine, confirm the existence of a “complex network of government contracts, alleged bribes and kickbacks and money laundering” involving the Gupta empire, says Deutsche Welle.

Examples of cronyism revealed by the “#GuptaLeaks” - which have not been independently verified - include a deal in which a Gupta associate “allegedly secured 5.3 billion rand [£300m] in kickbacks from a contract to supply locomotives to the state rail operator”.

Another email appears to show Atul Gupta declining to rent a property to a Nigerian tenant, and others indicate hiring discrimination against black South Africans in some sectors of the conglomerate.

There is also increasing scrutiny of the family’s alleged dissemination of “fake news” to promote their narrative.

The Guptas’ media influence has been widely compared to the Information Scandal of the 1970s, in which the Department of Information was found to be misusing public money to plant pro-government propaganda in the local and international press.

A multi-part investigation by the South African Sunday Times uncovered what it claims to be evidence that the Gupta empire has been pushing its political agenda through a dozens of news websites, blogs and social media accounts.

“Several of the sites were created or linked to the same Gupta employee, Himanshu Tanwar, via his company FutureTeq,” the paper reports.

The Guptas' wide-ranging campaign to control South Africa’s media narrative amounts to a “multinational fake news scheme to hide the family’s growing enrichment at the expense of South African citizens and taxpayers,” says the Times.

Is the Bell Pottinger scandal the last straw?

While the South African press has long been unsparing in its criticism of the Guptas, the Bell Pottinger scandal has added the potent new dimension of racial tension to the drama.

However, even before that scandal broke, the Gupta family was in trouble. The #GuptaLeaks fallout shows no signs of abating as the press digests more than 100,000 emails detailing what Biz News calls the “breathtaking scope of the family's involvement in government affairs.”

“The family has reportedly fled to Dubai and plan to move their business to India and China,” says Quartz, although company officials deny this.

Five of South Africa’s major banks have now closed accounts linked to the Guptas, City Press reports, citing “risk appetite”.

In any case, the clock is ticking on Zuma’s presidency and, with it, the Guptas’ position at the heart of South African politics.

In December, ANC representatives will vote on his replacement as party leader ahead of the 2019 elections, and it is unlikely that his successor will rush to embrace the Guptas, at least publicly.

However, South Africans know that getting rid of the Guptas won’t solve their corruption problem on its own. The Guptas simply took advantage of a system with “little regulation of the line between business and politics”, says Quartz.

“Unless those boundaries are clarified and respected, another family is likely to take the Guptas’ place in South Africa’s political lexicon.”

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