Atul Gupta’s web of influence is set to grow, following his reported appointment as special adviser to Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane.
Gupta is said to be one of three advisers who have received diplomatic passports, sparking an outcry from Thabane’s political opponents.
The three will allegedly help attract foreign direct investment for Lesotho.
News outlets in Lesotho have reported the appointment and issuing of passports, along with the SABC online in South Africa.
The Gupta family confirmed there was a letter from the Lesotho government inviting Atul Gupta to become an economic investment envoy, with the aim of drawing investment into the kingdom.
Gupta had been out of the country for the past two and half months and was yet to respond to the invitation, spokesperson Gary Naidoo said.
Gupta was not aware of the offer of a diplomatic passport, Naidoo added.
Thabane’s press secretary Thabo Thakalekoala told Lesotho media last week that the prime minister was within his rights to make the appointments.
‘The prime minister’s prerogative’
“It is the prime minister’s prerogative to appoint people who market Lesotho abroad and who have the experience in sourcing investment for the country,” said Thakalekoala.
Dimpho Motsamai from the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa told the Mail & Guardian that Thabane had likely taken advantage of his country’s fragile political situation, and made an executive decision to appoint the three.
Thabane suspended the country’s parliament to avoid a vote of no-confidence from his coalition partners.
Lesotho’s coalition government is in pieces after the junior partner, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), has vowed to forge a new coalition that would oust Thabane of the coalition’s major partner, the All Basotho Congress (ABC).
“There are serious tensions between Thabane and leader of LCD and deputy prime minister, Mothetjoa Metsing,” said Motsamai.
The LCD has condemned the appointments, demanding that the diplomatic appointments be withdrawn.
Insult to the Basotho people
The party’s MP Retselisitsoe Masenyetse has described the decision as an insult to the Basotho people, the SABC reported.
“Our own government … decides to recruit within its ranks … people who caused a lot of security concerns across the border, a lot of diplomatic concerns across the border, are within us, issued with our own sacred document. No, we find it as a serious insult to our nation, a very serious insult and we are saying we condemn it,” says Masenyetse.
A government official in Pretoria confirmed with the M&G this week that Gupta was appointed the Lesotho prime minister’s special adviser and that he was given a diplomatic passport by authorities in Maseru.
The appointment of Gupta, who has business links with President Zuma’s son Duduzane, came as the South African president was preparing to take a working visit to Lesotho on July 29.
Public face of the Gupta family
The M&G has seen a memo dated July 18 2014 sent by Lesotho Home Affairs Minister Joang Molapo to his ministry’s top officials, directing staff to issue Lesotho diplomatic passports to three foreign nationals “in order to allow them to undertake their actions under Lesotho’s legal system”.
“I require that this process be undertaken in full and proper adherence to the laws of Lesotho. Can the director-passport services and chief legal officer meet to review the request and then ensure that all legal processes are followed,” reads the memo.
Atul is the public face of the Gupta family, who arrived in South Africa from India from 1993 onwards. The family’s three brothers have ingratiated themselves within the South African political elite, particularly President Zuma. The family’s Sahara Holdings empire has grown to include mining, aviation, technology and media.
The Guptas’ media company, the New Age, has been awarded various valuable government contracts. The family has consistently denied any allegations of wrongdoing.