An investigation by intelligence agencies into the "conduct" of the Gupta family not only took place, it was also justified, indeed necessary, the former head of South Africa's domestic spy agency has told the Mail & Guardian, angrily contradicting claims to the contrary made in Parliament by State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele.
In a rare interview, Gibson Njenje, the former director general of the State Security Agency (previously known as the National Intelligence Agency) criticised Cwele's claim that he had shut down an improper operation, while denying there was any substantive probe of the Gupta family. Accusing Cwele of "talking nonsense," Njenje said Cwele "might lose his job" over these claims.
The row over the probe was among the key reasons Njenje lost his job in 2011, along with Moe Shaik, head of the foreign wing and Jeff Maqetuka, as the M&G reported at the time.
The reason for the investigation into the family, notorious for its close ties to President Jacob Zuma, was because of a "concern at how they conducted themselves".
"The issue of the Guptas has been there for a long time," said Njenje. "They have not been hiding their conduct. If intelligence was not concerned, we would have been foolish. The concern was how they conducted themselves."
On Tuesday, Cwele suggested at a media briefing in Parliament that Njenje was fired because he was involved in an irregular investigation in 2010 into the relationship between Zuma and the Guptas.
Platforms and capabilities
Without mentioning Njenje's name, Cwele implied that Njenje's investigation into the relationship between the president and the Guptas was irregular, saying he would not allow spies "to fight personal or individual battles, particularly business battles" by using intelligence "platforms and capabilities".
Asked by the M&G whether Njenje, Shaik and Intelligence director general Maqetuka were fired because of their investigation into the relationship between Zuma and the Gupta family, Cwele denied this.
"What was stopped was an irregular investigation which involved the use of state security assets to fight private business interests that have no bearing on our work to uphold national security," Cwele said through his spokesperson Brian Dube. "We will continue to stop any use of assets by any member of the agency outside our mandate."
But Njenje described Cwele's statements as "dangerous" and "foolish", saying it could cost the minister his job. Lambasting Cwele for suggesting that he was involved in an irregular investigation, Njenje said: "If I were to explain [details of the investigations], I would have to go through everything. I left in 2011 and he [the minister] is talking nonsense about personal interests. In the position I held, I was able to talk to the Guptas and I did.
"I established certain things and I spoke to people about it. His [Cwele] attempt to protect information is provoking us. He is using his office to issue irresponsible statements. Why say there is no investigation and in the same breath say I was involved in an irregular investigation? If I were Siyabonga, I would stay away. He might lose his job [for saying this]. I was responsible for that investigation. I know a lot, but I can't divulge [it] now."
An angry Njenje vowed to take the matter up with ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe.
"I'm going to talk to the ANC about this. It has the potential to unravel a lot of things in the country. Once I retort to all these false statements [by Cwele], I will be forced to tell the truth. There is a lot of information we picked up from intelligence [about the Guptas]. I want to talk to Gwede to say the ANC let the situation loose. The ANC was supposed to come in when we were fired to say, 'What is this?' Nothing of such a nature happened," said Njenje.
Meanwhile, three senior intelligence sources from different agencies told the M&G that the Gupta family had allegedly attempted to do business with the government's intelligence services.
Two senior intelligence officials, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity regarding intelligence matters, said the Gupta family made a proposal to Cwele in 2011 to provide interception and surveillance software to the government.
The software allegedly to be provided by the Guptas would have enabled the government to intercept calls with ease, according to the two intelligence officials. Unlike the state's outdated interception software, the Guptas' system was not easy to detect on the phone. It was said to be able to capture the person being investigated visually and produce a printout at the same time, according to the intelligence sources.
There were concerns in the agency about its potential abuse, intelligence officials said.
Several attempts to get comments from the Gupta family drew a blank.
Cwele's office also did not answer specific questions posed by the M&G relating to the allegations about the interception and surveillance software.
Njenje said he was not aware of the proposal, but would not be surprised if it had been submitted by the Guptas.
Zuma spokesperson Mac Maharaj did not respond to questions emailed to him.
The latest revelations comes barely a fortnight after a private jet carrying guests for a Gupta family wedding landed illegally at the Waterkloof Air Force Base, sparking a public and political outcry.
Competing factions within the ANC-led alliance were united in condemning the landing, with an angry Mantashe issuing a strongly worded statement and calling for action against those responsible.
In contrast, Zuma never attempted to distance himself from the Gupta family. Though he did not attend the lavish wedding at Sun City, his wife Bongi Ngema, nephew Khulubuse Zuma and son Duduzane did attend.
The wedding celebrations were also attended by several Cabinet ministers including Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu and the deputy minister in the presidency, Obed Bapela.
Free State Premier Ace Magashule, whose son Tshepiso is a business associate of the Guptas, also attended.
A line-function matter
The attendance by senior ANC politicians occurred despite calls by alliance structures, including Cosatu and the ANC Youth League, for leaders to stay away as it would be interpreted as an endorsement of the Guptas' political dominance and apparent influence over the ANC and the government.
Although it is reported that the so-called Guptagate scandal has caused a falling out between Mantashe and Zuma, ANC spokesperson Keith Khoza rejected the claims.
"There are no tensions between Mantashe and the president," Khoza said. "Your sources must not speak for the secretary general or second-guess him. Claims that he is unhappy with the president's relationship with the Guptas are not true and cannot be attributed to him. The statement Mantashe released last week and the statement that the president released actually complement each other in terms of the stand taken by the ANC on the matter.
"There has never been a formal complaint in the ANC regarding the president. On what basis must he distance himself from the Guptas? People are trying to drag the president into a matter that doesn't concern him. This matter falls outside the mandate of the president. It is a line-function matter and relevant departments are dealing with it."
But comments by an ANC national executive committee (NEC) member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, suggested otherwise. The leader, who is a close ally of Zuma, lambasted Mantashe for releasing what he called an incendiary statement.
"ANC leaders can't launch themselves on such things, especially in a country where the opposition wants to keep the ANC on its toes," said the ANC leader. "The ANC was supposed to write to the defence department. You can't write to them [the defence department] through the newspapers. We lead society. We are responsible for determining the game.
"What Gwede was supposed to do was to issue a statement saying that we [had] noted the unhappiness around the landing at Waterkloof and saying we [the ANC] had conveyed our concerns to the secretary of defence. The most critical thing is political management. You can't manage issues by being reactionary."
However, another ANC NEC member and a close ally of Mantashe defended him. "The noise [about the illegal landing] is in the right direction. I'm not sure how genuine Mantashe's statement was, but what I do know is that he did the right thing.
"It was long overdue. You don't rock up. You announce. Gwede is irritated with the president's follies. He has repeatedly defended Nkandla, but he is one of the few ANC leaders who has never been to Nkandla. With the Guptas, he put his foot down. He restored confidence in the party."