At official functions they’re the guys in black suits sporting earpieces, scanning the room. But mostly, these guards can be found sitting on the pavement outside the Gupta family’s multimillion-rand Saxonwold Drive residence in Johannesburg.
Now, for the first time, some of the family’s former guards have breached their professional code – and, in telling their stories, revealed startling details of how patriarch Ajay Gupta visited “Number One” up to three times a week until late last year.
They also dropped the names of several surprising VIP visitors to the family’s home and various business premises.
Three of the guards, who spoke to the Mail & Guardian, described seeing Mondi paper boxes and tog bags bulging with so much cash that they’d have to close the latter with cable ties.
The following is an account of their time with the Guptas.
Driving the boss
Several guards have been assigned to Ajay Gupta over the years. One of them said they were known as the A-Team because they drove “the boss” around.
“He was always kind. He would sometimes slip the guys a hundred bucks for food.”
And Ajay, the guards said, would often reprimand his son Kamal when he caught him shouting at them.
Kamal, who celebrated his wedding in Turkey last weekend, is a director of one of the family companies, VR Laser, which is at the centre of a questionable partnership deal with state-owned arms company Denel.
“It was never over big things, but he’d shout if he didn’t like the way we went over a speed bump or maybe the way we were sitting.”
Ajay Gupta is known as ‘the boss’. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)
This former guard remembers waiting in the car while Ajay visited President Jacob Zuma, sometimes at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria. “I took Ajay and Kamal to the presidential guesthouse. They’d stay for about 30 minutes to an hour. I made about four such trips and I saw Zuma.”
Another guard said he had taken Ajay to see Zuma many times. “Sometimes I’d go to there up to three times a week. We’d just be told: ‘We’re going to see Number One.’”
The drill was always the same. “There would be two vehicles – us and the backup car, usually a black BMW. Mr Ajay travelled in the Range Rover. The backup car would go ahead and announce that we’re on our way and the policemen on duty would sign us in. They would sometimes jokingly tell us: ‘Oh, the real president is here.’ ”
Zuma’s spokesperson, Bongani Majola, said there was “no truth” to claims that Ajay Gupta visited Zuma at the presidential guesthouse because “the president hardly goes there”.
“He only uses the facility for events such as state banquets during state visits, meetings of the Cabinet lekgotla or of the presidential working groups, should the numbers be too big for the Union Buildings’ boardrooms to accommodate,” he said.
18-hour shifts, very sore feet
“Some of us could work up to 18 hours, it just depended on the client’s schedule,” one guard says.
Each guard was assigned different duties and would drive them around between Saxonwold, Oakbay, Sahara, the TV channel ANN7 and the New Age newspaper – the family’s various businesses.
“Some of the guys work at the gate in Saxonwold, others inside the perimeter of the property. When you first start you’d drive backup, you know, until they trust you.”
Although they were employed by Idol Protection Services, owned by Herman Steyn, the guards say they worked exclusively for the Guptas. “There were our guys and the G4S team.”
The M&G was unable to interview any staff from G4S, which specialises in “valuable logistics” and security.
The guards said they worked in a highly pressured environment in which they were often scared to make a mistake. “We were treading on eggshells. If the doors opened, we ran to the cars. They could fire you on the spot if they got mad; there are guys who got fired like that.”
Said one: “I’d work from 6am until 11pm sometimes. Standing at that gate, driving them around. It was one of the worst work experiences for me.”
“You would take them somewhere, maybe to one of the mines or that game lodge in Limpopo. You’d be standing there in the blazing sun for hours. Then they’d fly back and you’d have to drive back to Jo’burg,” said another guard.
The Gupta guards say they were always armed. “It was a requirement for the job. Our boss insisted.”
But Steyn’s former guards are not impressed with him. One said: “He told us we’d get company-issued firearms, but he never [provided them]. We had to use our own and if we ever got stopped by the police, we’d have to hide our firearms because we were not allowed to use them for work.
“We worked like dogs for R14 000 a month. Some guys only got R8 000, but they were not necessarily properly qualified as close protection officers. Herman got paid by the Guptas and he would then pay us. But he never deducted tax from our pay.”
This guard said he was glad he was out. Asked if would he ever have taken a bullet for one of his clients, his response was emphatic: “Never. If I was treated with some respect, you know, you would never have heard from me what happened there.
When we worked at the wedding in Sun City, our guys worked insane hours. At some point they had to force guests into the cars because they just couldn’t go on.”
Sometimes, he said, the guards would be waiting outside the Saxonwold house in the dead of night “because someone just forgot to tell them to go home”.
Steyn hung up when the M&G tried to ask him about the various claims against his company and failed to respond to SMSed questions.
Behind those high walls
They were generally out of earshot, but the Gupta guards did get to hear and see quite a bit.
Though they appear to have stuck to the professional requirement of confidentiality while they worked there, once they decided to leave some guards admit that they started noticing car registration numbers or making a mental note of who visited the house and the Guptas’ business premises.
“There are guys walking around with those notes,” declared one.
Two former guards remember a recent visit by Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
Buthelezi dismissed the visit as nothing but a quick lunch.
“In 2013, I was invited to a wedding by the Gupta family, which I openly attended. During the wedding, I met the young Tony Gupta, who was in the company of the president’s son, and they extended an invitation to me to have lunch at Mr Gupta’s home,” said Buthelezi.
“I was only able to do so earlier this year when I was in Johannesburg for a funeral. Accompanied by my son, I stopped for lunch at Mr Gupta’s house in Saxonwold. We left directly after lunch so that I could catch a flight.”
Mangosuthu Buthelezi has dismissed his visit as ‘nothing but a quick lunch’. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)
Said a former guard: “We didn’t always know all the visitors, but we would chat to their guards or drivers because we’d be given money to buy KFC or something while they waited.”
Several of the guards said they had spotted outgoing African Union Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Johannesburg executive mayor Parks Tau and ANC Youth League leader Collen Maine at meetings with some of the Guptas.
But this week Maine and Tau denied ever meeting the Guptas.
Said Tau’s office: “Mayor Tau has never had or ever been invited to a meeting with or by the Gupta family – neither at their home nor their offices.”
Repeated attempts to obtain comment from Dlamini-Zuma’s office in Addis Ababa were unsuccessful.
Former Cabinet minister Tokyo Sexwale, it seems, was treated differently: one guard says he took Ajay Gupta to Sexwale’s house at least twice, even pointing out the Sandhurst address.
Although Sexwale has denied owning a property in Sandhurst, papers in a high court matter of a personal nature do speak of a family home in the suburb.
The M&G sent questions to Sexwale on Tuesday, but by the time of going to print he had yet to respond. On Thursday however, the Daily Maverick published an open letter authored by Sexwale and addressed to Ajay Gupta. In the letter, Sexwale confirmed that he had meetings with Ajay at both the Gupta homestead and his own home.
Boxes ‘stacked with cash’
The guards are trained to be observant. “Like the mail that comes to the house, it’s not in the Guptas’ name. It’s Singhala. They use that name for that.”
Singhala is a name used by some of the Gupta family.
Another observation was of the very large amounts of money at the Saxonwold property.
All the former guards the M&G spoke to agreed it was the empty briefcases and tog bags that went into the Gupta meetings, only to return to the cars “heavier”, that got them talking among themselves.
There are no names mentioned, but for a bunch of “ordinary middle-class blokes”, the sight of piles of cash stood out, said one guard.
“We are at Sahara the one day and this guy comes to collect a parcel. The tog bag was so packed with money, it wouldn’t close. We had to help him close it with cable ties.
“No, I don’t know who he was,” he said when asked about the identity of the alleged pick-up man.
Hlaudi Motsoeneng says his visits were above board. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)
“There was another time when we had to move some Mondi cardboard boxes. They were stacked so high, the money started falling out. All of us saw the money.”
Another former guard said: “When you get sent to pick up two heavy boxes on the highway, across from Sahara, and to take that to someone’s house, of course we saw things.”
SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng made an impression on the guards; they all remember him being a regular visitor. “He was there almost all the time.”
One guard claimed he saw a visibly empty soft leather satchel being carried into the Gupta house, only to leave looking markedly heavier and disappearing into Motsoeneng’s car.
“Nonsense! That’s nonsense,” said Motsoeneng when asked whether he ever received cash from the Guptas.
“Why would I need to get cash from the Guptas? They are businesspeople; I meet with them like with all others. We have a strategic partnership through the [New Age] breakfasts. I’m not going to discuss the details of that. Yes, I meet them, whether at their home or anywhere else.”
The M&G did send questions to the Guptas asking about the cash claims, which in some cases the guards estimated at “millions of rands”. The family did not respond and an employee at Oakbay Resources said all inquiries directed to their corporate communications email address go directly to the “senior management team”.
One guard says he never had any trouble looking after the Gupta family, save for one incident at Killarney Mall when he and several colleagues took members of the Gupta family to the movies.
He stood on duty at the door of the cinema, catching an occasional glimpse of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, a subtitled romantic comedy starring Bollywood hunk Salman Khan.
Next, this guard – one of several with close protection officer training (with baton and knife) – was called to intervene in an altercation between Ajay Gupta and another group in the cinema.
“We were in the movies, Mr Ajay and Mr Atul, a big group, and someone was complaining, I think because one of them was making a noise.
“We had to get quite firm with those people. Mr Ajay demanded that we get their names and particulars. It wasn’t ugly at all but that was the only time there was, you know, some kind of trouble [that] happened.”
The family is said to be partial to Bollywood movies and one guard recalled escorting them to see Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. (Supplied)
The Guptas loved the movies and often trekked there en masse on Sunday afternoons.
Another guard said for him it was just a job and he did what was needed to be done for the client. “But look, as much as they make headlines for some things, they’re also a very humble family; deeply religious.
“I also saw them being very generous, like when they dished out stationery, clothes and food parcels to people in a community near Sun City when they had that big wedding.”
For all intents and purposes, guarding a Gupta went smoothly – if only the hours and the pay were better.
Why some guards quit
“It’s not a normal job. There are cameras all over that place,” said one guard. The paranoia just got a bit much recently. “Like when the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters] made those threats against them, suddenly security was beefed up. They brought in extra G4S guys, armoured cars, a Ratel [an infantry vehicle usually used by the military].”
The guards say most of their former colleagues have stayed because they need the work. “But quite a few of them have left over the past year.
“Another guy, he quit because they gave him a week’s notice to move to Dubai in November. Imagine that: packing up your life within a week?” He added that the guard was told he’d be over there for three years.
“He was just told to produce his passport so they could make arrangements for the trip to Dubai.”
He provided the names of two guards who did travel to Dubai, but they declined to speak to the M&G.
Some members of the embattled Gupta family have moved to Dubai, while the rest commute between there and South Africa.
After the fallout over their unfettered access to political power and allegations that they used their friendship with Zuma to their business advantage, the Guptas face their biggest battle to date: convincing the country’s major banks not to terminate their business bank accounts.
Failing this, they will have a nightmare task running their empire in South Africa.