The Gupta family, led by brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh, has had two decades of empire-building in South Africa. They have reeled in presidents, ministers, the media and anyone who wants to ride on the gravy train.
When the Mail & Guardian first looked into the family’s influence, it was barely a blip on the radar. Now the Guptas loom large in the South African public’s imagination, accused as they are of “state capture”, to the degree that they can apparently offer ministerial jobs to ANC leaders when it suits them.
When they first settled in South Africa, the Guptas got close to Essop Pahad, then-president Thabo Mbeki’s minister in the presidency, but when that relationship soured they developed an even closer relationship with Jacob Zuma.
By 2007, the Guptas had a growing and prosperous company, Sahara Computers (not connected to the multinational of the same name, based in India). A few months before Zuma took over the ANC leadership at the Polokwane conference in late 2007, the Guptas hired Zuma’s son Duduzani as a board member of Sahara. His twin sister, Duduzile, became a Sahara director at the same time, but later resigned.
In 2009, the Guptas tested the waters and landed themselves a lucrative tender for the supply of laptops to 300 000 schoolteachers around the country, which the teachers paid off at a government-subsidised rate.
A few months after Zuma became president of South Africa, the family took their relationship to the next level – starting with an official state visit to India. We reported in 2010 that government ministers and business leaders became suspicious of the relationship between Zuma and the Guptas because the president was spending a disproportionate amount of time in meetings with the Guptas during the India visit. “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 M&G.
Later that year, it was revealed that Gloria Bongi Ngema, Zuma’s fiancée at the time, had landed a job working for the Gupta family. It appears, too, that the president’s wealthy friends may have facilitated the purchase of the bride-to-be’s R5.2-million home in Pretoria. Ngema was then given, as we reported, a position in the communications and marketing department of JIC Mining Services, which is majority-owned by the Guptas’ Oakbay Investments.
The year 2010 was one in which the Guptas spread their influence even further. The family was a key player in the agreement to sell controversially acquired prospecting rights at Sishen to steel conglomerate ArcelorMittal South Africa for R800-million plus a hefty black economic empowerment stake in Arcelor. Both the Guptas’ Imperial Crown Trading 289 (ICT) and mine operator Kumba applied for the rights lost by Arcelor; they were given to ICT. In the same year, the government decided to centralise its annual advertising expenditure of R1.7-billion, which has benefited the Guptas’ newspaper, the New Age, ever since, despite its inability to produce reliable circulation figures.
Meanwhile, the family’s reach extended to the Industrial Development Corporation, which signed off on a R250-million loan to help the family get into the uranium business by means of a consortium featuring Oakbay Investments, Zuma’s son Duduzani and the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association.
A year later, Free State Premier Ace Magashule’s son was given a cosy position at Mabengela Investments, which belongs to the youngest Gupta brother and Duduzani Zuma. In return, Magashule defended the Guptas’ right to do business with the government, even amid the growing furore about their lucrative links to Zuma and other top ANC leaders.
Once the Guptas and their relationship with the Zumas became the talk of the town, ANC members were then quick to defend the president, with the likes of the party’s secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, saying that criticism of their political influence was driven by “racial prejudice”.
By 2012, the rot was palpable. The Guptas illegally landed a chartered plane at the Waterkloof air force base, from which they conveyed wedding guests to a glittering ceremony and party at Sun City. It was claimed that air force officials had acceded to this demand because “Number One” – Zuma – had been mentioned. Cases against some of the officials have stuttered into silence, and Bruce Koloane, then the chief of state protocol, took the blame; he has since been given an ambassadorial post.
In 2013, we revealed how the Gupta family’s fingerprints were all over a controversial R570-million Free State dairy project, which, according to the national treasury, was riddled with irregularities.
And that’s just the background. In the foreground now are other Gupta manoeuvres, such as the offer of the finance ministry to Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas, just before Zuma fired Nhlanhla Nene. Jonas turned them down, but has now revealed that the offer took place – a revelation likely to be the most damaging so far to Zuma and the Guptas.
If they were planning to get involved in Zuma’s nuclear deal with the Russians, or solidify their hold on more Eskom-supplying coal mines, it might just be a little harder for them. And that’s a good thing. If the revelations of how much the Guptas have manipulated politicians and accrued vast wealth by crooked means continue and turn out to be true, it could be the end of their – and Zuma’s – power. And that would be a very good thing.