A statue of Cecil John Rhodes. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/FOTO24/LIZA VAN DEVENTER
A statue of Cecil John Rhodes. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/FOTO24/LIZA VAN DEVENTER

At first glance, you wouldn’t think there could be scary similarities between Cecil Rhodes, the arch-imperialist, and the octopus-like Gupta clan.

But apart from shady business ethics and overt racism, the most glaring trait the Guptas share with the colonial "colossus" is the cynical question that Rhodes ritually asked of everyone who stood in his way: what’s his price?

Rhodes believed everyone could be bought. He practised this credo very successfully, boasting of "squaring" rivals and officials: today, we’d say bribing. The Guptas have profitably imitated the same contemptuous formula. After all, they emigrated from India and engineered a bold takeover bid to purchase our president. In their case, however, "squaring" can also be as cheap as flying a minister to Dubai and paying for a few days in a luxury hotel. Unlike Rhodes, who had to get elected prime minister of the Cape to achieve complete control, the Guptas simply had to acquire Jacob Zuma to take over running the country.

All this has come into sharp focus now that the race to succeed Zuma has heated up, with smears surfacing recently aimed at the current deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, generally seen as the anti-Zuma candidate. These smears have the fingerprints of state intelligence agencies all over them. Indeed, Ramaphosa and others have remarked that this bears another sinister likeness to our past, though more recent than Cecil Rhodes: the era of faked leaks and disinformation pumped out by the apartheid security establishment.

So, at the very moment that we need a tough-minded and independent media to sift fact from fiction what has happened? The ubiquitous Guptas have sold their interest in their malignant media outlets (or appear to have done, as the deal is very murky) to a notoriously controversy-prone character. The Guptas’ comically deceitful TV channel, ANN7, and their shabby newspaper, The New Age, would easily vie in any competition for the grubbiest in their categories, although they might have stiff competition from North Korea. They seem to exist for two reasons only: to attack Zuma’s opponents, and to siphon off large chunks of government advertising revenue in return.

The Guptas are divesting themselves of their local assets (or appearing to) as their corruption has led to nearly every bank closing their accounts. On the bright side this is due to outstanding journalism which — for lack of any police investigation — has exposed the staggering extent of Gupta chicanery. But on the dark side, you only have to take a glance at the man to whom they have "sold" their newspaper and TV station.

Mzwanele Manyi is a huckster who loves the limelight and often says anything that comes into his head, which can either be fatuous or offensive.

It is a bizarre fact that fibs that would see a cub reporter sacked never thwart rich people, with a rocky relationship with the truth, from media ownership

Manyi was once the government spokesman until his taste for being the story rather than spinning it got the better of him.

In that sense, he is probably the perfect fit to take over the Gupta propaganda machines.

He has a counterpart in the proprietor of the largest stable of newspapers in the country, the Independent Group. Iqbal Survé loves to appear in his own newspapers and is given to grandiose boasts about his CV that dissolve on examination — including the claim that he was Nelson Mandela’s doctor on Robben Island when he was in fact a mere junior medical student.

Foreign publications lap up this tosh. It was Survé’s Sunday newspaper (edited by a somewhat compromised journalist) that published that "scoop" about Ramaphosa, seemingly chiefly based on shoddily doctored e-mails, but largely unchecked: a very debased form of journalism. But when criticised, Survé lashes out — his newspapers once even ran a full-page "exposé" of his many critics, devoid of truth or fact; the shabbiest page of journalism I’ve seen in a long career.

It is a bizarre fact that fibs that would see a cub reporter sacked never thwart rich people, with a rocky relationship with the truth, from media ownership. This is an international aberration, but a particularly sensitive one right now for us.

Sad to say, in many ways Cecil Rhodes would feel right at home today in Zuma’s SA. It’s even possible that not all the Gupta toadies have taken kickbacks.

There is always the caustic cautionary reminder of that famous limerick: "Thank God you cannot bribe or Trust/ The Honest British Journalist/ But judging what the man will do/ Unbribed, there’s no occasion to."

• Rostron is a journalist and author.

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