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Jacob Zuma vs democratic South Africa - only one is likely to survive

A bloody cabinet reshuffle has left South Africans divided and reeling. 

It was the dead of night when South African President Jacob Zuma took an axe to his cabinet, dismissing or shuffling 20 ministers and deputy ministers at once. South Africans woke to the news that a key figure in government, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, had been sacked.

The first news of what had taken place was not carried by the state broadcaster, but a private channel – ANN7 – owned by Zuma’s financial supporters, the Gupta family. The television station gleefully broke into its regular coverage to deliver every twist and turn of the story.

Senior African National Congress leaders – including the secretary general Gwede Mantashe and deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa - were left stunned. Previously they had been consulted about even minor cabinet changes. Now they were simply informed.

The shock was palpable. “The Zuma presidency has ended. The Zuma dictatorship has begun,” wrote commentator Richard Poplak

And he was right. This was no simple cabinet reshuffle. It was the last, desperate roll of the dice by a President who faces 783 charges of corruption. Zuma seems determined never to face jail again and to guard those who have funded him. This means protecting the Guptas, at whatever cost.

The Gupta family and the President

Since they arrived in South Africa in from India in 1993 to establish a modest computer company, the Gupta family has become one of the richest and most influential in the country. ANC bigwigs reportedly come and go from their palatial home. Today it is guarded by an armoured car and private security forces.

The Guptas relocated to Dubai in April 2016, allegedly taking with them vast sums of money. But their major South African operations were hampered by the banks, which closed their firms’ accounts, fearing that some of their transactions were questionable.

This is where Pravin Gordhan comes in. The Finance Minister took the issue to court, with documents showing that members of the Gupta family, and companies they control, were involved in suspicious transactions worth R6.8bn (around £400m). Incredibly, as the case progressed, Gordhan found himself facing an attempt by his own President to join the case – on behalf of the Guptas! When the courts rejected this, Zuma was left with one option to save his financiers: sack Gordhan.

A battle for the soul of the ANC

The confrontation now under way will decide the future of the ANC, the party that has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid. This battle too has enormous ramifications for the country.

On the one side are the president’s critics. They now include:

In the other corner is President Zuma and his allies. They are not inconsiderable and include:

  • A number of senior ANC officials, including Jessie Duarte, the party’s deputy general secretary, who said it was “time to unite behind” the cabinet reshuffle.
  • Senior provincial officials of the ANC, who are known as the “Premier League”, who owe their positions to the president.
  • Many members of parliament, who also believe their careers depend on Zuma. It is far from clear that they will support a vote of no-confidence when it is heard in about a weeks' time.

Zuma's invisible allies

There are other covert forces who will be supporting the president. It should not be forgotten that President Zuma ran the ANC’s intelligence operation while in exile. He has placed many allies in South Africa’s security agencies, who are only too willing to resort to a range of "black-ops" to bolster their leader.

An intelligence report was produced to discredit Gordhan while he was abroad, suggesting that he had been holding meetings in London to plot Zuma’s downfall. The alleged plot – known as “Operation Check Mate” - had little substance, but it gave Zuma an excuse to summon him back home. 

The Guptas have also deployed the resources of the British PR firm, Bell Pottinger, to support their cause. 

Zuma is threatening to implement a far more radical programme, now that he has obstructive colleagues out of the way. This could include a massive programme of Russian nuclear power plants and Mugabe-style land seizures. 

He is also targeting what is termed “White Monopoly Capital”. One of South Africa’s leading white businessmen, Johann Rupert, has complained vociferously about being targeted by the firm on social media to draw attention away from the Guptas (Bell Pottinger has denied any involvement in a social media campaign). 

South Africans are preparing for a rough ride as fight to they protect their democracy. “South Africans cannot rely solely on party political or parliamentary processes for democratic renewal,” wrote Mzukisi Qobo, a political risk analyst. “Zuma has declared war on society and the economy. The ultimate battle can only be won on the streets, through conscious organisation, and waves of protests that are designed to make it difficult for Zuma’s government to function.”

The next few weeks will be critical if Nelson Mandela’s vision of a country at peace with itself is to survive.



Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 


Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.