When rumours surfaced of major ructions and corruption investigations at PetroSA, they came laced with murky claims of top-level political protection.
It was said former acting chief executive Yekani Tenza, implicated in the scandal, had suggested further investigation would expose "big names" and risk "national embarrassment".
One tale repeated a supposed boast by lawyer George Sabelo that he had a "direct line" to the president and that he "advises Zuma's kids".
To be clear, this is just rumour, and there is no allegation that the presidential family is part of the scandal gripping PetroSA.
Sabelo did not respond to questions, and Tenza dismissed all claims of bribery, corruption and influence peddling. Nevertheless, amaBhungane investigations have uncovered a web of connections tying Sabelo, and to some extent Tenza, to the Zuma family, supporting circumstantial elements of the rumour.
For example, records show Tenza was previously a director with Sikhumbuzo Selby Zuma in two companies: Isthebe Mobile Technology and Bomema Group.
Selby, who served as a Zuma family spokesperson during Jacob Zuma's rape trial, said he was not related to the president. Isthebe Mobile is a part of Selby's Isthebe group of companies, some of which have included one or more of the president's children as directors, notably Edward, but also Mxolisi and Duduzane.
Isthebe's website describes it as a "family-founded enterprise" and lists Sabelo's former law firm, Farber Sabelo Edelstein (FSE), central to the scandal at PetroSA, as a legal adviser. Selby confirmed that Isthebe had used the law firm, although a source close to FSE denied it – while holding out the possibility that Sabelo might have done so privately.
Sabelo is also listed as a director of two now-defunct coal companies in which Selby Zuma was a director.
Tenza confirmed that he previously went into business with Selby and Mxolisi, through Bomema Group, but he denied any knowledge of Isthebe, similarly refuting any links between himself and Sabelo, which would prove problematic for him as it was he who appointed Sabelo to act for PetroSA in the disputed Ghana oil acquisition.
Selby said he was an entrepreneur and set up dozens of companies to pursue business opportunities, but there was no connection to the issues involving PetroSA: "You're trying to find something … to tarnish the Zuma name – the link doesn't make sense, it's not there."
Also among FSE's clients is Jacob Zuma's daughter Duduzile, the source close to the law firm confirmed.
Meanwhile, Sabelo also appears to be close to the chief executive of Harith Fund Managers, a firm central to the PetroSA allegations.
Harith chief executive Tshepo Mahloele featured in an amaBhungane exposé last year that revealed how the ANC stood to benefit from a R1-billion, state-funded share deal, through a Capitec Bank empowerment consortium.
Mahloele was an architect of the deal alongside Zwelibanzi "Miles" Nzama, an executive of ANC funding front Chancellor House.
When Capitec announced the black economic empowerment deal in 2007, it said the consortium's largest beneficiary, Keabetsoe Holdings, was jointly owned by Mahloele and Nzama, but last year Mahloele denied Nzama was a shareholder.
Sabelo appears to have first met Mahloele more than 10 years ago when the lawyer acted for Investec, which was suing the latter's furniture company. Apparently the two became close, and after Mahloele went on to senior positions at the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) from 2003, Sabelo began to do legal work for the state-owned financier, well-placed sources confirmed.
At the PIC, Mahloele led the Isibaya Fund, which controversially warehoused Telkom shares to assist the politically connected Elephant Consortium, linked to associates of then-president Thabo Mbeki.
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