By Mavuso Msimang
First published in
City Press

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet Ozymandias, first published in 1818, tells the story of a traveller in the desolate Egyptian desert who comes upon a broken statue of King Rameses II, whom the Greeks called Ozymandias. What remained of this pharaoh’s statue were two huge stone legs and, half sunk in the sand, a shattered face with, the poem says, a “frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command”.

Shelley continues: “And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’”

Fast-forward to 20 March 2016 in South Africa. Sunday newspapers and, indeed, all other media, are replete with stories of our Pharaoh and the Guptas, a family with vast business interests in communication, mining and finance.

One after another, prominent members of the ANC have been telling the nation about how they were approached by a Gupta brother and offered a Cabinet post or commandeered to make some strategic decision. How so, for that is the prerogative of our Ozymandias?

The relationship between Ozzy and the Guptas is nothing if not incestuous. Ozzy nonchalantly admits to the existence of the friendship, but says that is all there is to it – no shenanigans. That Ozzy’s family members hold important management positions and substantial shareholdings in the vast Gupta business empire is purely incidental. That Gupta-owned companies also participate in bids for public sector business opportunities is inconsequential.

Ozzy obviously does not subscribe to the notion of “conflict of interest”. Neither do a substantial number of his colleagues on the ANC national executive committee (NEC), hence their anaemic call last weekend to anyone who may have been approached by the Guptas – or any other businessperson – with a subversive request to report these to the secretary-general of the ANC.

It’s not clear if any member of this important council still remembers that former security cluster directors-general Gibson Njenje, Moe Shaik and Jeff Maqetuka lost their jobs in 2010 for so-called irregular investigations of the relationship between Ozzy and the Gupta brothers.

Apparently, no one at this NEC meeting remembered the landing in 2013 of a Gupta-owned Airbus A330-200 at Air Force Base Waterkloof in Pretoria, which was carrying more than 200 passengers who had come to attend a Gupta wedding; and that SA Police Service VIP protection officers escorted the group as it left the airfield, blue lights turned on. Members of the public remember this affront to our sovereignty with a deep sense of shame.

The NEC’s tepid efforts in dealing with the Guptas’ reported attempts to corrupt state officials will have sent the unmistakable message to the populace that it is the individual who leads, and not the party in the ANC collective. They must also be extremely disappointed to realise how easy it can be to surrender a country’s sovereignty for a mess of pottage.

Use of executive power must be in the best interests of the nation

As part of an attempt to divert attention from the Guptas’ insidious incursions into the public governance space, a red herring is now being bandied about. The real threat to our democratic governance, we are warned, is not the Guptas but the obscenely wealthy “Stellenbosch mafia”, or be careful of a “regime change” offensive.

On 9 December, Ozymandias, in a late-night television announcement, told a disbelieving nation that he had “decided to remove Mr Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister, ahead of his deployment to another strategic position”.

Within two days of this disastrous decision, the rand lost 9.5% of its value, falling to its lowest level in history against the US dollar. A blood bath ensued on the JSE, resulting in a loss of R170-billion from the bourse and severely eroding ordinary people’s life savings.

But spare a thought for Nene, a well-meaning patriot, diligent and respected in his profession, who has since had to cool his heels in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands on garden leave of undefined duration.

Ozzy’s apologists defend the Pharaoh’s often intriguing Cabinet reshuffles by regurgitating the obvious – that the hiring and firing of ministers are his prerogative. They should be reminded that the corollary of that prerogative is that such exercise of power must be in the best interests of the nation.

We now know Nene’s removal had absolutely nothing to do with “his deployment to another strategic position”; that this, as immediately suspected, was a ploy, communicated to a public treated like nincompoops. Three months after his “removal”, there is no New Development Bank position waiting for Nene.

The opacity attendant to Nene’s sacking has led to understandable speculation over why he was fired. Some blame it on that little matter of the Airbus aircraft acquisition by SAA.

Chairperson of the SAA board Dudu Myeni didn’t agree with National Treasury on a financing option for the deal. Definitely no lightweight, it may be recalled that not so long ago, Myeni pointedly ignored Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown’s instruction not to fire an SAA CEO. Such defiance is unknown in the public service unless, of course, one has a strong fullback covering your back. It has also been suggested that Myeni’s executive chairpersonship of the Jacob G Zuma Foundation and her warm personal relationship with the president afford her unrivalled access to Ozymandias.

How could Nene dare to adopt a stance on the nuclear build programme that didn’t quite resonate with Ozzy’s? Foolish man. More than rumour has it that the nuclear energy option was discussed with much enthusiasm with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

It just so happens that a business family whose relationship with the powers that be is set to go into uranium mining. Does the name Shiva Uranium ring a bell?

Promising beginnings

Were Shelley’s traveller to traverse our political landscape today, his journey would take him through many interesting sites and landmarks. For starters, he would learn that President Jacob Zuma was one of the first top ANC leaders to return to South Africa from exile following the unbanning of the ANC; that he was centrally involved in the negotiations that brought democracy to our shores.

Crucially, Zuma played a pivotal role in quelling the murderous violence that took place in KwaZulu-Natal between ANC and IFP supporters in the early 1990s. Our traveller would discover that, in the restoration of peace in the troubled areas, Zuma rendered yeoman service, unsurpassed and absolutely second to none. He is a deserving recipient of the Nelson Mandela Award for Outstanding Leadership, which was given to him in Washington in 1998.

Ozzy’s CV on the internet notes with pride that he was once in charge of the government’s moral regeneration programme, and that he launched the first national conference of the Moral Regeneration Movement at Air Force Base Waterkloof (Ouch!) in November 2004.

In his speech at the time, he noted the importance of seeking solutions to problems of moral decay “and to commonly work to build an ethical society”.

One can imagine the traveller’s surprise when, stopping over at the KwaZulu-Natal High Court, he is confronted by Judge Hilary Squires’ findings, circa 2005, and gets to know that during the trial of one Schabir Shaik, Ozzy’s comrade and one-time friend, the arraigned businessman was later found by the Supreme Court of Appeal to have been in a generally corrupt relationship with Ozzy. Shaik received an effective 15-year jail term. No charges were preferred against Ozzy, begging an awkward question about the workings of the justice system.

To his credit, Ozzy was at the time “determined” to have his day in court to clear this implied guilt by association.

Veering off the straight and narrow

In 2006, the traveller might learn, Ozzy was facing a rape charge. The judge who handled the case came to the conclusion that, although the deed was, indeed, done, it had been consensual. Giving evidence in his defence, Ozzy blamed the happening on the young HIV-positive woman who had visited his home with luscious knees exposed and wearing an invitingly translucent kanga.

The traveller may check and find that Ozzy, conscious of his exposure during the tryst, made a beeline for the bathroom to take a shower that he believed would mitigate the impact of the dreaded virus. This confession prompted Zapiro, a satirist, to capture the moment in a signature cartoon that featured a showerhead affixed to the head of the future head of state. This cartoon was to become an enduring embarrassment to many of us – a painful object of derision.

Onwards the traveller goes, to 2007, when the state was preparing to lay charges of racketeering, corruption, fraud and money laundering against Ozzy. With a sense of collective relief, supporters and adversaries alike were thankful that at last the opportunity had come for Ozzy’s sullied reputation to be examined and, perhaps, redeemed. The long-awaited day in court was nigh.

But Ozzy executed a Houdini act that left his chasers puzzled and bewildered. He deployed the best brains he could find and armed himself with vast amounts of state funds to ensure he never got anywhere near a courtroom.

People began to wonder if he had ever wanted his much-vaunted day in court. These allegations, uncleared, went to the very essence of his integrity and credibility.

Moment of hope fades quickly

In 2010, the traveller would have found a pair of bright spots. With admirable boldness, Ozzy had overhauled his predecessor’s calamitous HIV/Aids strategy. He had hired as minister a workhorse who wasted no time in continuing the roll-out of an antiretroviral programme that was soon recognised as the best worldwide. The second bright spot came in the form of South Africa’s outstanding hosting of the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

But the nation’s post-1994 allure had already begun to fade, thanks in part to the earlier benighted presidential attitude towards HIV/Aids.

The World Cup afterglow did not last long. Corruption by the construction companies that had been contracted to build stadiums was exposed. They had engaged in massive bid collusion to amass superprofits costing government billions in taxpayers’ money. And then, of course, the allegations by the US government that we had bribed our way into hosting the soccer spectacle followed.

The traveller may then arrive in Fortress Ozymandias, Nkandla. This sprawling rural estate is Ozzy’s dream retirement home – an ambitious project, the more so for somebody with a history of insolvency. From the word go, its success was predicated on the beneficence of friends, particularly businesspeople.

Fatefully, the introduction of government’s security upgrades programme ultimately sounded the death knell on the project’s reputation and caused irreparable damage to Ozzy’s integrity and self-esteem. An investigation by the Public Protector quickly exposed not only sleaze but deep character flaws among a coterie of associated government officials.

Nkandla also tested the virtue and probity of a political party and, in that act, cruelly exposed a modern colossus with feet of clay. Ominously, it invited a judgment by the highest court in the land that is now being awaited with trepidation.

When he is gone, Ozzy will be remembered as having been inextricably associated with corruption and the massive destabilisation of institutions of governance, especially in the justice and finance sectors.

In summing up his impressions during the visit, the traveller concluded that he had come across a ruler with a charming personality who had perhaps been given much more than he could chew; a man prone to scandal and with no sense of accountability; whose obduracy put his nation in constant anticipation of disaster.

The traveller will have noted that Ozzy’s fearsome strength derived from the feebleness of a leadership that seems to have sworn that its service must never incur his displeasure.

• Msimang is an ANC veteran and a member of the board of Corruption Watch.

Photo of Jacob Zuma from the Presidency.