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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.


  • Gareth Setati

    Gareth Setati holds a masters degree in electrical engineering and qualifications in business management and economics. He is a graduate of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute and is currently pursuing further studies there. He works in the Communications Service Provider industry involved with systems and software engineering.