There is a saying in politics that it is often the small transgressions that end a political career.

Well perhaps not so much in our country in recent times, but in most other democracies.

Lately I have been trying to keep up with all the zeros when people talk about the corrupt deals our politically connected figures have entered into.

I remember when post-1994, I was blown away when I heard of someone who was paid R1 million as a “fixer fee”. I had to do some mental arithmetic to remind myself how many zeros that involved. These days R1 million sounds like cake sale money.

We really don’t get shocked unless it goes into the hundreds of millions or even billions. Mcebisi Jonas was after all not offered sixty thousand rand or even six million rand. He was promised a whopping six hundred million rand to become a Gupta lackey.

Despite all of this, we should be careful not to become too blasé about what look like relatively small transgressions among our Cabinet ministers.

Two weeks ago, Julius Malema released documentation relating to the Guptas’ naturalisation. Naturalisation is the process through which foreigners qualify for citizenship in another country.

South Africa, like many other countries, requires that a foreign citizen should be legally in the country for five years and not be absent for more than 90 days per annum from the country during those five years. Only after that period is finished may an application for naturalisation be submitted.

These rules are strictly adhered to except, it seems, if you are a Gupta.

From the documentation it is clear that members of the Gupta family (A.J., his wife, mother and two sons) applied for citizenship as a family unit in 2013. However, at the beginning of 2015 officials at the Department of Home Affairs declined their application on the basis of section 5(1) 5 of the South African Citizenship Amendment Act, i.e. that A.J.’s wife had not fulfilled the five year requirement and his mother had been absent for more than 90 days in one of the preceding years.

They were politely invited to apply again at a later stage. Clearly the Guptas were not impressed and appealed to then Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, and hey, presto, a few months later, they were South Africans.

Asked about this Gigaba did not deny that it had happened, but he argued that it was fully within his power to do so. He is correct that the South African Citizen Amendment Act (section 5(g)) says that “the Minister may under exceptional circumstances grant a certificate of naturalisation as South African citizen to an applicant who does not comply with the requirements.”

However, the question is what would qualify as exceptional circumstances? According to Gary Eisenberg, an immigration lawyer who was interviewed for eNCA, exceptional circumstances refers to something like sports people who would want to participate in the Olympics for South Africa.

This reminded me of a call I got from Ernie Els many years ago when I was ambassador in Ireland. Ernie and his wife Liezl were living in the UK at the time and had just had a new baby which they had duly registered as a South African citizen. Out of patriotism Ernie always retained his South African citizenship and travelled on his South African passport.

At the time he was due to play in the American Open, but urgently needed a passport for the newborn. A baby passport was not a complicated procedure as long as the baby was registered (which this one was). The ambassador or head of the consular section could then authorise the passport issue within minutes. At the time the queues at the South African mission would literally go around the block with hours of waiting time, if you were lucky enough to get in at all. Yet, not a single official in our mission in London would assist Ernie.

Despite being one of our biggest sports ambassadors (he was at the height of his career then) they insisted that he and Liezl should present themselves in person and wait in the queues for hours. (Imagine how many autographs he would have had to sign in that time!)

Gigaba, on the other hand, argues for something as serious as granting citizenship that the Guptas’ case involved exceptional circumstances; exceptional enough to overlook the fact that A.J.’s wife and mother did not actually meet the requirements.

Now if Ernie’s circumstances weren’t exceptional and no exceptions could be made for a simple baby passport, there is nothing, in my mind, that can warrant such a serious exemption for the Guptas.

Gigaba insists that they create many jobs and thus are of service to the country. (I can just see all the memes popping up about Cabinet jobs). He also claimed that as the minister he always had to grant exemptions when “irregularities” occurred in the instance where, for example, the spouse of a newly naturalised citizen did not also get citizenship.

Really? Well, I am sure that the hundreds, if not thousands, of spouses of South Africans who have been waiting for years for their citizenship were falling around the place laughing (if they were not exploding with anger) when they heard that.

Interestingly, the Guptas’ exemption was never tabled in Parliament as is legally required. Although the departmental officials told Parliament yesterday that they disagreed, some legal experts are of the opinion that this could nullify the Guptas’ citizenship. Now wouldn’t that be something?

It was also pointed out in Parliament yesterday that, since India does not allow dual citizenship, the Guptas had to renounce their Indian citizenship and hand in their Indian passports before the final certificates of naturalisation would have been issued. Yet, no departmental official could confirm if this was, in fact, done.

They did confirm, however, that A.J. Gupta would not renounce his Indian citizenship and thus were not naturalised. So it seems that the head of the family unit never planned to actually take up South African citizenship. Surely his lawyers warned him that dual citizenship would not be allowed? Which raises the question: Why would A.J. agree that his wife, mother and two sons renounce their Indian citizenship in order to become South African citizens, but not him?

Gigaba did not attend the parliamentary briefing where he had to account for his actions. He was apparently busy with other important engagements. Yet, his response to media questions around this issue boiled down to: “Show me where I have been wrong.”

This reminded me of Gary Hart who in 1988 was doing well as a Democratic presidential candidate in the USA. Then The New York Times ran a story alleging he was having an extramarital affair.

Hart responded by saying: “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.” Two reporters from The Miami Herald did exactly that. The end of the story? Well, a few weeks later they introduced the world to Hart’s mistress, Donna Rice. And so ended his political career.

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.