The Guptas, state capture and an ‘Oakbay employees’ letter
Anyone following South African news will be aware of the high profile scandals and debates that have for a number of years been surfacing and rocking public life, scandals which are hydra-like in having many nodes of activity, seemingly centred on President Zuma, but actually concerning more deep-seated structures indicative of widespread venality and corruption. One of these scandals concerns some particularly powerful business-men, the Guptas, and the idea and reality of ‘state capture’, an analytical term developed by Joel Hellman and others. In February and March 2016 there was much reporting of the network connections – indeed, adding up to a figuration in Norbert Elias’s terms – existing between the Gupta brothers and many of those in the Zuma inner group. The indications are that this operates across companies in media, communications, construction, finance, infrastructure development, a wide range of other economic ventures, and also encompasses the highest echelons of political life. The bottom-line here is that the Guptas have been able, not only to exert undue economic influence, but also to directly offer political placements and to influence if not dictate changes even at the ministerial level, a contention backed by concrete evidence from people who had been either on the receiving end or were otherwise directly affected.
As many such scandals surfaced into the public domain, in early April 2016 the country’s leading accounting firm followed by the big four top banks ended their business associations with Gupta-owned companies. Dramatically, the Guptas were subsequently seen departing for Dubai on one of their private jets, amidst rumours that earlier Zuma himself had taken vast amounts of money to Dubai for them in his diplomatic luggage. This exit was perhaps because of the scandals, perhaps for a family wedding, rumours have abounded. However, their business ventures continued unabated, including at least one multi-billion Rand deal.
But what of the letter referred to in this blog’s heading in all this?
Oakbay Investments is a top-level company owned by the Guptas and acts as a mechanism through which many of their other interests are funded or channelled. On Wednesday 20 April 2016 an ‘open letter’ was widely distributed, via one of the Gupta communications companies, to the effect that thousands of ordinary South Africans were being adversely affected by the closure by the four top banks (FNB, Standard, ABSA and Nedbank) of the company’s accounts, with the result that they could not be paid. This was wrong, it proclaimed, because hurting the innocent. The letter included:
‘We are not rich people. We are not politically connected. We have not captured the state. We have never offered any politician a job. We do not know if any of the allegations against the Gupta family or Oakbay’s management are true. We do not care. All we care about is providing for our families. If you do not open Oakbay’s bank accounts we cannot be paid and Oakbay cannot pay its bills.’
The letter was ostensibly from the employees of Oakbay and its message was clear, that many ‘ordinary South Africans’ would lose their jobs and would go hungry. Its frequent reiterations of ‘we’ are insistent in conveying the sense of a particular group of people who are being adversely affected by activities they have never been engaged in themselves and accusations that they neither know nor care about, because they are concerned with providing for their families.
But immediately, problems were raised about the ‘letter’ that states these things.
Firstly and most importantly, political commentators have raised the point that there is no signature of any authorised individual or organised group either on the letter or the surrounding communications. It appears just with the names of two so-called representatives, but with no indication of what it is that they are supposed to be representatives of, apart from the insistent ‘we’; and has continued to be ‘unauthorised’ even after this issue was raised. In the controversy, it has been insisted that a proper letter must have a signature, but not just any old signature, for the signature must be authorised, traceable and identifiable. Secondly, one of the organisations that has been closely connected with the state capture activities of the Gupta brothers, the ANC Youth League, almost immediately issued a statement in support of the Oakbay letter, with the speed of its appearance taken by many to indicate that it was actually prepared prior to the ‘letter’ having been issued. Thirdly, no members of the Gupta family or their senior managers have made public statements since the original claims about the different facets of state capture were made. This has been taken as a lack of appropriate response, with reactions coming from PR companies and the like, rather than those most immediately involved, and this is seen as adding up almost to an admission of guilt by omission. And fourthly, many of the workers employed both directly and indirectly by Oakbay Investments have disclaimed having been consulted about the letter, and also indicated their disagreement with its contents. It has been seen as rather the work of a PR company or some other agents acting either for Oakbay Investments and/or the Guptas more directly.
Fascinatingly, then, debates about the defining characteristics of ‘the letter’ have become central around this particular political scandal and are worth teasing out.
(1) Repeatedly, it has been insisted that a ‘proper letter’ must have a signature which is identifiable in terms of an authorised person or persons or an appropriately authorised organisation acting on behalf of such. A document purporting to be a ‘real letter’ is suspect without this, for personal and authoritative signature is seen as essential.
(2) It has also been commented that a proper correspondence must involve an appropriate temporal gap between one letter having been written and sent, and another being written in response to it. If there is no temporal gap, then what is occurring cannot be correspondence, which is by definition dialogical.
(3) In addition, commentators seem agreed that there should be an appropriate response outside a ‘proper’ letter, that this response must be consistent with what is being inscribed in its contents. What is being advanced here is a basically referential view of the relationship between what is in a letter, and the social context that gives rise to a letter.
(4) And commentary also indicates that there needs to be ‘real world’ agreement with the content of a letter by whoever (a person) or whatever (an organisation, signed for by a representative member or members) has authored it. Therefore, if a constituency being invoked or which is represented as having authorship disagrees with or rejects or more strongly denies the veracity of what is inscribed, then a letter is taken to be not a ‘proper’ one. More strongly, without this a letter is seen as in some sense a false one.
There is little indication in these controversies that ‘the letter’ is dead or in decline. Indeed, its ebullient life is rather treated as providing an appropriate yardstick of the truth or otherwise, not only of the letter ostensibly from the ‘Oakbay employees’, but also more widely concerning the ongoing political scandals and the fabric of lies, half-truths and proliferating rumours surrounding these.
There is considerable irony here. In spite of the alternative ways now available for communicating and ‘doing business’ of political and other kinds, when push comes to shove the interpretation of what is going on in these South African political and economic scandals turns on a letter and its veracity or otherwise. And this is seen as demonstrated by whether and to what extent it meets the above four key criteria for what a ‘proper letter’ should be like, an interestingly conventional and ‘old-fashioned’ approach.
The key question, then, is not whether the ‘Oakbay employees letter’ is an open letter rather than a private one, nor whether it is a fictional letter and so an openly artful performance. It is rather whether it is false, a lie masquerading as truth, and so not an actual letter at all.
And a P.S., also concerning a letter. A few days after the ‘Oakbay letter’ was circulated and debated, another open letter appeared in the public domain. This is by a long-time colleague of Ajay Gupta, senior member of the clan, drawing on past collaborations to make a plea for probity in future activity by the Gupta businesses It is by Tokyo Sexwale and appeared in a widely read radical e-newssheet, the Daily Maverick. Fighting fire with fire, and countering secrecies and the Oakbay debacle letter with a truly open letter. See:
An open letter to Ajay Gupta: Lessons for business-government interactions Daily Maverick 29 April 2016.
Last updated: 1 May 2016