By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” June 17, 2022)
The news that two brothers from the wealthy Gupta family were arrested in the United Arab Emirates must be sweet music to the ears of Themba Maseko and millions of South Africans.
Atul and Rajesh Gupta are accused in South Africa of profiting from their close links with former president Jacob Zuma, and exerting unfair influence. Extradition talks are taking place between the two countries.
The brothers fled South Africa after a judicial commission began probing their involvement in corruption in 2018. They are accused of paying financial bribes to win lucrative state contracts and influence powerful government appointments.
This sad state of affairs has its genesis in 2010, when Themba Maseko, a top government official, was called to the Gupta home and asked by Ajay Gupta to divert the government’s entire advertising budget to the family’s media company. When Maseko refused, he was removed from his position and forced to leave the public service.
Last year he published the book, “For My Country: Why I Blew the Whistle on Zuma and the Guptas”.
“For My Country…” is a damning book because it speaks of greed and corruption in high places. The book tells the story in jarring details about Maseko getting a call from President Zuma instructing him: “My brother, there are these Gupta men. I want you to meet with them and help them.”
Maseko met with Ajay Gupta but refused to accede to the wishes of President Zuma and the Guptas. His refusal turned his life upside down. In 2016, when the African National Congress (ANC) called on members with evidence of wrongdoing by the Guptas to step forward, Maseko was the only one to do so. He was fired, threatened, labelled a traitor and made to suffer.
Maseko has strong movement credentials. He made his name as a student activist and leader. He joined the African National Congress and the Communist Party and rose quickly up the ranks. He was trained in law and business management but became the public face of the government during the Mandela and Mbeki administrations.
Maseko was elected in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. However, he resigned one year later and joined the civil service.
In the foreword to “For My Country…”, Sydney Mufamadi, his mentor, described Maseko as an activist “who was part of a generation of civil servants who put our people ahead of their personal interest and put people ahead of party. They understood that the best way to serve their party was to serve the country with commitment and integrity”.
Maseko describes his early beginnings and the impact of his mother and father on his life. Both parents saw education as the key to a better life and wanted nothing more than to see their children succeed. He writes about dealing with hunger and the endless days when their only meal was bread and peanut butter.
Maseko described June 16, 1976, as a watershed day in his life. That was the day the Apartheid government opened fire on protesting students in Soweto, killing hundreds of them. He realised then that he “had a choice to live like a slave or die like a fighter for his people and country”. That day, he said, “defined who he was to become and hooked him on politics”.
Maseko spoke of the many ways in which Nelson Mandela inspired him. He pointed to Mandela’s strong leadership by assembling a diverse cabinet that brought former enemies together; inspiration to all South Africans to have hope and see themselves as part of a “rainbow nation”; his deep commitment to improving the condition of the poor, surrounding himself with highly competent people who were usually younger and smarter than him in certain respects, and the important leadership lesson he bequeathed about succession planning.
Maseko pointed to early signs of “State capture” within a few years of the ANC taking power in 1994. Politicians started looking out for themselves rather than the people they swore to serve; stories broke of politicians violating the good governance principle, which required separation of political functions from administrative ones while at the same time ensuring clear points of connection between the two. He spoke of his tremendous pride when his department “tabled one of the very rare unqualified audit reports to parliament”.
When Maseko became the chief government’s spokesman, he said his team “wanted to ensure that government messages addressed the needs of society and that our work should not be mere propaganda. We were very clear that government communication was about listening to the voters.”
Maseko had high praises for President Mbeki’s management skills. He regarded him as very competent and praised him for how he dealt with meetings. He said he was always punctual and “rarely participated at the beginning of meetings”.
The emergence of Jacob Zuma as deputy president and then president witnessed the full-scale capture of the state by powerful, rich people. It is true that Maseko’s disclosure about the Guptas brought the issue to the fore but as early as 2005, a top advisor to Zuma was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to 15 years in prison. It was revealed at the trial that the convicted man paid Zuma hundreds of thousands of rands in exchange for political influence in a multi-billion rand arms deal.
The Guptas’ influence and control of the state were all-embracing. The brothers boasted that they could make and break politicians. They controlled the government’s protocol office and became vital players when Zuma made official visits abroad or when foreign officials arrived in South Africa. The true extent of the Guptas’ control of Zuma’s presidency was revealed in 2013 when an airline carrying 300 rich friends of the Guptas landed at South Africa’s main military airbase.
Maseko said he made the decision that “something had to be done; the Guptas had to be stopped. I had no idea how to go about it, but this incremental hijacking of our democracy had to be exposed. He said when his exposure hit the news, “I panicked since I had done something that was taboo in ANC politics: I snitched on the president and on my party.”
Was Maseko’s whistle blowing and sacrifice worth it? Of course it was.
By 2018, investigations into corruption and state capture began in South Africa. The Guptas fled the country and Zuma was removed from office in 2019. The Guptas are in jail awaiting extradition to face trial in South Africa.
Vincentians must draw courage and lessons from this beautiful story.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].