Billionaire Atul Gupta is the executive chairman of TNA Media, an independent non-executive director of Comair Limited and co-founder of the Sahara computer company. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Billionaire Atul Gupta is the executive chairman of TNA Media, an independent non-executive director of Comair Limited and co-founder of the Sahara computer company. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE Gupta brothers set foot in South Africa for the first time in 1993. The arrival of the Gupta clan, as part of the Great Trek from India, was not quite like Jan van Riebeeck landing the Dromedaris, Reijger and Goede Hoop in the Cape in 1652, but both sets of settlers conquered nonetheless.

The Guptas tried to set up a shoe factory, without much success. And they did a bit of this here, an IT company there. Give the Gupta trio — Ajay, Atul and Tony — credit for perfect timing, landing in South Africa just in time for the 1994 breakthrough that provided fat worms to early risers. Fast forward to 2005, when the Guptas had gained unimaginable prominence. That was the year of the battle between Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki and the Guptas were in the thick of things. They chose a side and they chose well in siding with Zuma. They had tried courting Mbeki, but they did not get very far compared to how smoothly their lives seemed to become after Zuma became president. The Gupta brothers continue to claim, however, that they were friends with Mbeki and company much as they are friends with Zuma and his family.

In 2005, the Guptas realised the political tide was turning as Mbeki fired Zuma. They invited him to a family function, just after Mbeki "released" him as deputy president. The Guptas don’t mind telling whoever cares to listen that they were there for Zuma when his days were dark. They even have a video to prove that just after he was dismissed, they invited him to a family function. Those who know Zuma well say he has a long memory: he doesn’t forget his enemies and he remembers those loyal to him. However, how he ditched the Shaiks for the Guptas disproves the part about him remembering his benefactors, as he tossed aside the Indians from Durban for the Indians from India.

The arrogance displayed by the Gupta family is worse than the behaviour we saw when the Shaiks were "in charge". Then, the Shaiks were cashing in on Zuma’s memory the same way the Guptas parade around confidently in the country they have in effect colonised. Less than a week after Freedom Day, they have reminded us that we are indeed a banana republic.

This weekend’s wedding was always going to be a tricky affair for the people who run South Africa. The Guptas can be trusted to embarrass the people they handle. That’s how they roll. And they don’t see anything wrong with it. They are not ashamed that they control Zuma. To say they control him is an understatement. How can I put it without getting a lawyer’s letter from our litigious president? They have him by the … you know what I mean.

Who can blame the Guptas? It’s not their fault our leaders dance to their tune, and praise the curry they are fed at the "cabinet meetings" at the Guptas’ Saxonwold compound. It is the duty of those who signed the oath of office to distinguish between right and wrong. It is in the DNA of the Guptas to do things unconventionally.

When the Guptas’ guests arrived in South Africa for the wedding, they landed at Air Force Base Waterkloof. When the Guptas want to book flights for other guests, they summon bosses to their house, presumably to discuss discounted airfares over a curry dish. The kind that got Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille into trouble, when, after a sumptuous meal, the DA’s coffers swelled a bit — thanks to our new colonisers’ donation.

Now we are finding an over-the-top reaction from the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) Gwede Mantashe and others in the alliance. They are shocked that a chartered plane invaded our land.

With this landing fiasco this week, we saw all manner of protocol broken — in a way that "pisses" on our flag, to borrow from ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu’s vocabulary. It makes you wonder about the state of our intelligence services that a plane can land at a national key point without them realising there is a problem. But there is a reason officials would assume that what the Guptas want was approved by the president. They walk around directing ministers and senior officials at will, to such an extent that it would be difficult for public servants to turn them down. Whoever okayed the landing at Waterkloof would have assumed that it was within the "laws of the Zupta fiefdom".

Despite the noise from "shocked" ANC alliance leaders, the Guptas are not likely to disappear. The ANC needs them. There are murmurs that the party is in trouble financially — a crucial time ahead of next year’s elections. That ANC machinery needs funds and helicopters to take people around the country. And who, other than the Guptas, can be trusted to roll out unlimited help without asking questions? Cyril Ramaphosa has deep pockets and wealthy friends, you think. Patrice Motsepe has been paying increasing attention to the ANC alliance, funding this and that and building a church in Nkandla, but he and Ramaphosa’s own "Guptas" may not easily open their wallets and hearts in quite the same way the real Guptas do.

Mkokeli is political editor.