At the beginning of February, the Mail & Guardian invoked an obscure section of the Companies Act to demand current shareholding information for VFS Visa Processing SA, which muttered through clenched teeth about it not being the first time, but then scrupulously complied with the law, observing all courtesies along the way.
It was not the first time the M&G had sniffed around VFS, originally short for Visa Facilitation Services. The company holds government contracts worth billions, it is private and thus opaque in South Africa – and rumour has followed it for many years. Its sibling companies also happen to act as agents of foreign governments on South African soil.
And there is at least one proven scandal about how VFS came to handle almost every visa application made to the department of home affairs (DHA) in South Africa.
“The involvement of VFS should be seen less as an example of the DHA trying to regain control of migration and manage it effectively, but rather as the continued fragmentation of the civil service in South Africa under the New Public Management paradigm and therefore an acknow-ledgement of failure and incapacity,” wrote Wits University masters student Thea Siphokazi de Gruchy in a 2015 research report.
Privatisation remains an unresolved debate in South Africa. The outsourcing of a core government function, and a security-sensitive one at that, remains a particularly sore point. Legitimate, too, is the vague discomfort at the fact that there had been no real competition when VFS was appointed.
In the past decade, the company has cornered its specialist market through contracts with many countries in Europe and the Middle East, and outliers such as Canada.
It has something increasingly approaching a global footprint, and resulting economies of scale, on its side. To governments its services are in effect free; it charges the foreign applicants money.
It also doesn’t hurt that herd-animal bureaucrats can point to tender wins in other countries to justify their own selection of VFS.
Under those circumstances the fact that VFS won a supposedly competitive tender does seem like a convenient fiction.
But for all that warranted concern, the charge that VFS acts as a front by which the Gupta family is ripping off visitors to South Africa just comes nowhere close to standing up.
“The Guptas definitely own that company,” one tipster said about VFS earlier this year.
In fact almost all of VFS operations across the globe are ultimately owned (often through Mauritius) and controlled by the Kuoni Group, which is listed in Switzerland. Kuoni is on the verge of being taken over by a Swedish private equity company, which is putting together one of the largest travel groups in the world on several counts, in a deal worth R20-billion.
The imminent finalisation of that deal has made the Swiss parent company unusually sensitive to scandal.
Then, last Friday, scandal found it.
“Any person in the world, who wants to travel to our country for work, business or pleasure, must first pay their share to the Guptas,” Democratic Alliance home affairs spokesperson Haniff Hoosen announced in Parliament, promising hard evidence on request.
Again, as in all previous VFS cases, the evidence failed to stand up to even cursory scrutiny. Hoosen did not respond to M&G messages, but a third party provided a copy of the receipt he had cited.
It was more than a year old, issued to a South African citizen, not a foreigner, on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
The receipt was for a payment processed through the account of one “Islandsite Investment” – and the Gupta family has used companies of the same name in their dealings. But, as simple investigation would show, there are currently more than 60 company listings in South Africa under that name.
“Islandsite Investments” is a product of the remarkably infertile naming imagination of shelf-company creators, who have used it more than 500 times, appending different numbers at the end every time.
“VFS Global or its affiliates have no association with the Gupta family whatsoever,” the company said on Tuesday – and though it is hard to prove a negative, all the evidence bears that out.
But the use of the same shelf-company provider as the Gupta family was enough to condemn it, protestations be damned.
“They [VFS] work out of the Gupta buildings in Midrand,” a new tipster insisted on Wednesday. When told that is definitely not the case she said she would take the matter to the public protector instead.
“These Guptas are everywhere,” she added. “We have to stop them.”