The arrest of Gupta brothers can be a turning point for S Africa

But the state needs to tread carefully to ensure this victory does not transform into a lost opportunity, or worse, the beginning of yet another period of political violence in South Africa.

A group of people protest outside the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) embassy calling for the speedy extradition of the Guptas
A group of people protest outside the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) embassy calling for the speedy extradition of the Guptas on June 10, 2021 in Pretoria, South Africa [File: Daan Vivier/Getty Images]

On June 6, something dramatic happened in the Gulf. Rajesh and Atul Gupta – two prominent members of the infamous Gupta family accused in South Africa of using their family’s close relationship with former President Jacob Zuma to profit financially and influence senior political appointments – were arrested in the United Arab Emirates after years on the run.

If hassle-free extradition and a transparent conviction occur, the capture could be a major turning point for South Africa. These arrests can not only allow those accused of stealing from the South African people to be held to account, but also help restore the trust South Africans once had in their state.

Criminal masterminds

The Gupta family relocated from India to South Africa after the end of apartheid to pursue emerging business opportunities in the country. After building a lucrative business empire in South Africa over the years, they now stand accused of “state capture” – a form of corruption in which businesses and politicians conspire to influence a country’s decision-making process to advance their own interests. It is alleged that the Guptas manipulated President Zuma, who ruled South Africa between 2009-18, to dole out billions in public money to a web of companies controlled by their family members and associates through pricey gifts and kick-backs. According to some estimates, state capture during Zuma’s tenure wounded South Africa’s economy to the tune of $82.6bn, which amounts to a whopping 25 percent of its current gross domestic product (GDP).

In February 2018, Zuma was finally forced to resign due to corruption allegations relating to the Gupta family. Now facing prosecution, after Zuma’s exit from the political arena all prominent members of the Gupta family left South Africa.

Since then, the Gupta brothers have been flaunting their wealth across the world, shuttling between various Asian nations and Dubai, where they are said to run new enterprises and own waterside mansions.

Despite categorically denying accusations of corruption, they had been refusing to return to South Africa to defend their name, claiming a fair trial is impossible in the country.

Though South Africa does not have an extradition treaty with the UAE, Interpol, acting on a request from South Africa, placed a red alert on the Gupta brothers last year, paving the way for Monday’s arrest.

Huge victory

The Gupta capture is a moment of celebration for South Africa.

If the two brothers can be extradited to South Africa, prosecuted and convicted in a timely manner, the country can finally begin the process of fully addressing the corruption that brought the state to its knees.

The trial of the Gupta brothers may help reveal the global web of offshore companies, secret bank accounts, shadowy collaborators and luxury assets that swallowed billions of dollars of South Africa’s public money. Recovery of all or part of the stolen money can make a big difference in South Africa. Today, South Africa has the highest unemployment rate in the world. Due to Zuma-era state capture, the nation is so broke that its electricity grid is on the brink of collapse, its national airline has almost vanished, its once world-class railways are now obsolete and its FBI-styled prosecutors’ agency (the one that will put the Guptas on trial) is now begging for donations just to keep working. If just some of the billions allegedly laundered by the Guptas are found and returned to the people, South Africa’s fortunes can be reset.

The capture of the Gupta brothers in the UAE could also help anti-corruption struggles across Africa as it shows the Gulf nation is eager to challenge its reputation as a haven for financial criminals from the continent.

A tinderbox moment

There is, however, no guarantee that the capture of the Gupta brothers will lead to positive change in South Africa and beyond.

There is a significant risk that Monday’s arrest will remain a symbolic victory against corruption and not deliver any practical returns to the South African people.

Indeed, it is likely that much of the billions of dollars in public money allegedly stolen by the Gupta family is now laundered and hidden far from the reach of South African prosecutors.

As many past extensive corruption investigations and trials around the world showed, arresting the corrupt can be an easy step compared with proving their guilt and recapturing the funds they looted.

Even after the Gupta brothers are put in the dock, prosecutors can be forced to spend decades weaving through secret bank accounts and shell companies formed in very secretive jurisdictions to recapture even a fraction of the public money they allegedly took for themselves. Moreover, currently South Africa’s prosecution agency is a shell of its former self, begging private attorneys to donate their skills and time. Even if they finally have their day in court, the fabulously wealthy Gupta family and their expensive set of attorneys could easily outgun South Africa’s prosecutors.

The Gupta brothers’ capture also raises the possibility of further political polarisation and violence in South Africa.

The ongoing prosecution of Zuma and other alleged beneficiaries of the Gupta family’s “state capture” has long been perceived by supporters of the former president as political persecution rather than a transparent judicial process.

Current President Cyril Ramaphosa, who dethroned Zuma as head of state in 2018, is being accused of using prosecutors – and the infamy of the Gupta family – to relinquish the remaining political influence of the former president.

It is little wonder then that when news of the Gupta brothers’ capture broke, a section of the population saw it as an opportunistic attempt to distract attention from Ramaphosa, who himself is currently facing corruption allegations.

So, if the Gupta brothers are extradited, tried, and go on to implicate allies of Zuma, there could be a repeat of the July 2021 bloodshed that followed the arrest of Zuma, which killed nearly 400 people.

The Guptas’ arrest, extradition, and conviction could be South Africa’s biggest coup against the institutionalised corruption that has brought the country to its knees. But a trial could also open a very dangerous can of worms.

The South African state needs to tread carefully to ensure Monday’s victory remains a moment to celebrate and does not transform into a lost opportunity, or worse, the beginning of yet another period of political violence in the country.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.