Gareth Setati
Gareth Setati

Guptagate, a scientist’s point of view

In the past few weeks of politics in our country, it transpired that politics can be a dirty playground meant not for the fainthearted.

Since the dramatic saga hit the news, and still receiving immense attention in popular media, some friends perhaps sensing that I am “mum” about the issue have asked what my reflections are regarding the issue of a Gupta chartered aeroplane landing at Waterkloof Air Force Base, carrying with it wedding guests reported to be numbering in the hundreds. Paralysed by a kind of anxiety-inducing deep shame, I have been unable to share much thought except to participate in the nation-wide bewilderment.

Ever since my university days, one of my all-time great physicists is Richard Feynman, who is in his own right a sage in this field of study. He is attributed with the following quote: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

Quantum physics is indeed a very complex subject, maybe even the most complex of all fields of study, owing to its “convoluted” concepts, complex computations, and the counterintuitive conclusions reached from studying it. I can attest to this from personal attempts of trying to understand it during my undergraduate studies.

Another scientist, J.B.S Haldane, a geneticist and an evolutionary biologist, though less known (and curiously a staunch Marxist), had this much to say about the universe: “My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

Although physics itself is a vastly different area of concern than day-to-day politics, as I was grappling with this issue that should rather be called The Waterkloof Debauchery, I contemplated if in some respects contemporary politics could be carrying the levels of complexity we encounter in physics.

As is customary with instances of our state failures in recent years, from nearly all sectors of society there has so far not been a dearth of analyses of the so-called “Guptagate scandal”. There is likely to be even further such (scathing) analysis after the outcomes of the investigations are made available for public consumption. For now I will spare you my analysis of all of this because the details remain scant nonetheless and perhaps also because I have not yet risen above my disappointment concerning the incident.

Part of my apparent cognitive dissonance on this issue arises from so many pertinent questions that are yet to be answered, as well as what this incident potentially implies not just about power brokerage in South Africa, but also about the “state of the State”. In a sense, for me, this incident has brought to bear the realities and dynamics of the so-called Dominant Party State.

On the matter of a state dominated by one party, I wish to digress for a moment. For some time now, political scientists and policy thought leaders have attempted to distinguish between state “trajectories” that are characterised by “dominant party” or “competitive clientelism” politics. There is considerable literature discussing the (dis)advantages of each trajectory within country-specific historical contexts, and I intend not to discuss those here, but instead to highlight that by virtue of being a dominant party state, even with particular excesses, it does not necessarily follow that a transformation into competitive clientelism will, ipso facto, result in better aggregate outcomes for that nation.

Notable contemporary examples that otherwise curb our over-confidence in competitive clientelism especially in developing countries include, among others India, Bangladesh, Kenya and Zambia. The latter three all having moved to competitive politics since 1991, the latter two African countries experiencing striking political instabilities, especially during election time and all four, with unimpressive improvements in their Human Development Index (HDI) and Human Poverty Index (HPI) ever since.

Given the “ANC hegemony” in South Africa, it appears, at least for this moment in our national development that South Africans will need to continue to find “entry points” into this hegemony. Entry points that are said to be “feasible” and that “advance the developmental agenda” in spite of the trying times we may often find ourselves in. I digress.

The brouhaha surrounding the Gupta’s in the last weeks, the manifold questions and situational permutations that can arise out of what could have happened on that ominous day, has eventually humbled me to the fact that politics, development politics, African politics, is an immeasurably complex system.

In the end, I am tempted to proclaim that if you think you understand politics, you probably don’t! With each passing of these jaw-dropping shenanigans, it continues to emerge that indeed in politics things can get queerer than we could have ever supposed.

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    • michael

      Gareth, if you understand African tribalism and chieftanship you will understand politics in SA. It is that simple.

    • Tofolux

      @gareth, apart from all the complicated words, dont you think that there seems to be something ”too easy” about all of this. I refer to our NATIONAL KEY POINTS in particular and our Presidents. I point you to some incidents of late, Marikana, Andries Tatane, the taxidriver’s murder, Nklanda, the CAR deaths, Guptagate. CAR deployments etc etc. In all of these incidents you have a strong influence of our security and police forces. If we remember all other “scandals”, you will note that ALL these scandals happen around the election periods (this during Mandela and Mbeki periods as well) and involves something of security. Furthermore, I wonder why we are not looking at the Bheki Cele saga and re-look at his downfall. Clearly there was something ”too easy” surrounding his downfall but that aside he was a serious candidate to challenge criminal activites and this is proved by the turnaround iro serious crimes. Gareth, I would have thought that instead of theorising and being philosophical about a political campaign that is proving to be quite sinister one would take some time to use one’s investigative tools. Also, if Guptas has so much money why would they allow themselves any possibility of embarrassment considering the status of guests or their own govt. Any investor must have a reputable track record and their reputation must be without question. Considering new trade ventures eg Brics, would any investor or business seek to wilfully ruin its credibility?

    • Gudani Luvhani

      Great piece as usual Mr. Setati. Like yourself I can only hope that a sacrificial lamb can be brought to the slaughter including the instigators. For we need a strong symbolical punishment, failing which the ANC is fast losing the propaganda war. In propaganda the ANC was amongst the best in the world but now find itself on the ropes. I cannot imagine a world where this historical noble movement that our parents gave their lives to being a non-entity. At this rate it is getting sucked down the obsucrity drain very fast. AMCU dismantling the tripitite alliance, therin lies the risk, leaders emerging that are loved by the masses. Some say its a phase in the life of each “new nation” adn it will pass.

      I think string theory can be added in the politics comparison as everthing is a fabric that is connected in string formation at a universal scale.

    • Enrico Fermi

      ” In a sense, for me, this incident has brought to bear the realities and dynamics of the so-called Dominant Party State.” Excellent analysis. In a sense, the SA state is morally bankrupt and as a result, has completely sacrificed principles for power. Without any morality or values, the Party State is for sale to the highest bidder – or even to any bidder, come to think of it. Wise analysis, and great insights.

    • Schrödinger’s cat

      Best article I have read for a long time; thanks Gareth Setati.

      Have you read the book “Manual for a Perfect Government” by quantum physicist John Hagelin? Well worth reading.

      There is plenty on Youtube on Dr Hagelin as well:

      Dr John Hagelin – ‘The Core Of Nature’ – Interview by Iain … – YouTube

      Author of “Manual for a Perfect Government”, John Hagelin, Ph.D. is a quantum physicist and leading …

      Enjoy. Perfect government is within reach.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Gareth, you could have made your point with two sentences. The danger of a one party state.

    • ian shaw

      This was just bragging about their degrees, and throwing around a complicated language of theoretical physics to show how erudite they are.

    • Nkululeko

      @ Ian Shaw I feel for u.