Concern is growing in political and business circles about the relationship between President Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family.
Zuma has known the family, headed by three brothers — Atul, Ajay and Tony — since he was deputy president in 2002, but their relationship has blossomed since he became president.
Government ministers and business leaders became suspicious of the relationship during Zuma’s state visit to India, where he was seen spending a disproportionate amount of time on meetings with the Guptas.
“It was clear that they had organised things beforehand and took charge of at least some parts of his diary,” one member of the business delegation that accompanied Zuma told the Mail & Guardian.
It is understood that some of the government officials who joined Zuma on the visit were questioned by their Indian counterparts about the Guptas’ relationship with the president.
“They were asked why the president is hanging around with these guys; they don’t have a great reputation in India,” a government source said.
Business leaders told the M&G that the state visit underlined the special relationship between Zuma and the Guptas, which gave the family favoured access.
More than 200 business people joined Zuma on the trip as part of a delegation organised by the department of trade and industry.
Some complained that they only had one opportunity to meet Zuma and that this was during a photo opportunity before a function.
“Several of us were pissed off that we were not included. During the two-day programme, Zuma was kept separate and the only people allowed to be with him were the Guptas and [Kumba Iron Ore president] Lazarus Zim,” said one of the business delegates.
Another source who accompanied Zuma claimed that the president had attended meetings with prominent Indian business people that had been organised by the Guptas. Only selected South African business people, some of whom are said to be Zuma’s known funders, attended these engagements, while other business people were sidelined, the source said.
“It was clear that the family wanted to use Zuma to establish connections for themselves. We expected to meet potential investors, but it soon became clear all the deals were done already; we could just pick up the crumbs that fell from the main table,” one businessman said.
The M&G sent questions to the presidency and the department of trade and industry, but the responses shed no light on who was responsible for Zuma’s schedule and whether some meetings were arranged by the Guptas.
On the state visit Ajay Gupta represented the family company, Sahara Computers, while Tony Gupta represented mining company Mvengela, of which he is director. Zuma’s son, Duduzane Zuma, also represented Mvengela on the trip.
Gupta family spokesperson Gary Naidoo said that all meetings were arranged by the relevant government departments.
Another source familiar with the family said that the Guptas were not particularly prominent in India and had built most of their wealth in South Africa. They now wanted to leverage their South African status to gain business in India.
“They entirely grew in South Africa; they did not have much to speak of in India,” said the source. This trip could have helped them gain access to people in India which they could not have seen otherwise,” the source said.
The Guptas’ influence in cricket “helps to build links in India”, he said. The family was known to have helped bring the Indian Premier League (IPL) to South Africa after security fears prevented it from taking place in India.
A civil society source in Mumbai confirmed that there was confusion when the Guptas started Sahara Computers, as a company of the same name operates in India. “They couldn’t push their brand in India because the other Sahara is just so much bigger,” the source said.
The presidency said the trade department prepares the business delegation lists and works on that delegation’s programme during state visits.
“The business delegation normally has its own programme, which runs parallel to that of the government delegation,” the department said. “The [department] normally runs workshops with the business delegation and there is normally a business forum which is addressed by the heads of state of the two countries. The Indian state visit had more government-business interactions organised by the [department] to boost trade relations.”
The visit also saw the relaunch of the India-South Africa CEOs’ Forum, chaired by Africa Rainbow Minerals chief executive Patrice Motsepe. In addition to meeting the leader of the Congress Party, Sonia Ghandi, Zuma also met the leader of India’s official opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Congress Party is historically aligned with the ANC and there are strong links between the two parties.
The presidency said Zuma had requested a special meeting with the entire South African business delegation to hear their views on how the visit went, as well as promising them a meeting in South Africa at a later stage. “This has not transpired yet,” said Zizi Kodwa, Zuma’s communications adviser.