/ 29 July 2016

​Suburban diss: Saxonwold residents vent over the Guptas’ ‘monster’ mansion

Ajay Gupta.
Ajay Gupta (centre) (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

On first approach, the house looks like a small and particularly ugly hotel. This is deceiving. It is, in fact, a physical parable about the allegations of state capture levelled against the Gupta family.

And on Wednesday it provided a glimpse into the future of an inquiry into those allegations, if any such ever takes place. The Gupta family has been following the letter of the law all along, their lawyer Patrick Mundell told a tribunal of the Johannesburg city council on Wednesday.

“There is no intention of anyone to break the law or thumb their nose or to challenge the authority of the council,” said Mundell. It’s just that the family is rich, “mega rich”, and that comes with peculiarities that include throwing big parties. 

The application of large amounts of money in ways they’re not used to can make other people confused and angry, Mundell explained, and that leads to all sorts of allegations. “They are trying hard to find fault,” said Mundell of those doing the alleging.

On the contrary, the Gupta family has done plenty that is illegal, countered irate neighbour Martin Lewison, and has got away with it thanks to the failure of the authorities to act. And now they’re trying to pull a fast one through misrepresentation, added town planner Craig Pretorius, on behalf of the residents’ association of the Saxonwold suburb.

The solution Pretorius suggested is as close as a building can come to being kicked out of the country, as the Economic Freedom Fighters has suggested must be done to the Gupta family.

“It should be demolished and built correctly,” the town planner said. In between those two mortally opposed sides sits a municipal planning tribunal, a quasi-judicial structure that must make a decision knowing that, regardless of how it finds, one party or the other will turn to a higher authority and the fight will continue.

“It will be interesting to see what the courts make of this,” muttered neighbour Lewison, as he stomped into a lift after Wednesday’s hearing.

Lewison has lived in Saxonwold for going on two decades, and he is angry. In 2009 the Gupta family started to build a house on a stand next to his family home, which now adjoins “Sahara Estate”, the sprawling family compound.

By the time the new house was complete it had a floor space of well over 2000 square metres — just how big it is forms part of a dispute — and is recognisable from space.

On satellite photos the chessboard on the roof, formed by large black-and-white tiles, makes it easily distinguishable from its neighbours with their uniform red tile or slate roofs.

The three-storey Gupta house looms over the modest Lewison home in such a fashion that nobody wants to live there. “The impact on our lifestyle and general comfort has been so huge that we have tried to sell our home. But potential purchasers say that they are put off by the unsightly structure imposing on our property,” Lewison told the tribunal.

“No person in their right mind wants to live next door to this monster.” But such complaints from neighbours are financially nonsensical, Gupta representatives argued. The “ultra-large”, “ultra-modern” home is one of the most valuable in the area, the family said in an application to the city council. Thus, “it is an enhancement and not detraction to the suburb”.

That dispute on the financial effect everyone else suffers — or the extent to which everyone else benefits — because of the Guptas’ dealings is at the very heart of the matter.

The family, their lawyer Mundell said, had done what they were entitled to do. They bought a piece of land, got approval to develop it, and built a house. There were some technical mistakes made by the council in approving the plans, he said, but those could be fixed administratively — and that was what the family was trying to achieve with the application heard on Wednesday. Everything else stems from the fact that the Guptas are rich, he held.

“Clearly, wealthy people are going to build a large house,” Mundell said. “It is not for us to dictate to wealthy people what size house they build. It is not for us to dictate to wealthy people whether they should have a cinema.”

But building a house 10 times the size of a middle-class dwelling, with a dozen bedrooms, three kitchens, three bars and, yes, a cinema, gives rise to suspicions, said residents’ association representative Pretorius.

“I don’t believe this house was designed for a single family or used for a single family,” he told the tribunal, in a close replay of the kind of incredulity that so many explanations by the Gupta family attracts.

“The home was never intended or used by the owner for normal residential purposes … It is used for guest and entertainment purposes for the house next door.”

Building that play space for the Guptas, and what their team says are their many guests, came at a price, Pretorius insisted. “The reality is that the adjoining owners have lost land value. That building was constructed, I can even say, selfishly.”

The tribunal is expected to communicate its decision on the application during August.

Inside the Guptas’ three-kitchen ‘single family home’

In the middle of a leafy suburb of carefully manicured gardens (including at the residence of Atul Gupta’s mother next door) is a reverse oasis. The house, neighbours say, is nothing but a party venue for the Gupta family — and the only plants are restricted to a handful of tyres hung off a boundary wall and painted in bright primary colours.

The family says it was always intended for a single family to live in the behemoth of a house, ever since it was finished in 2010. “One of the sons,” lawyer for the family Patrick Mundell said on Wednesday. But nobody has ever moved in, or even spent the night.

In six years the house has served a purpose only once. “On Diwali they used it to shoot fireworks, that’s all,” Mundell said. The evidence of that party is still visible, in a box of Chinese-made “golden sparkler” fireworks and a box of much more ominously named “aerial bombs”.

Photographs were not permitted during an inspection visit by the city council this week, and by agreement among the parties the visit did not extend to parts plans say contain a jacuzzi, a home theatre and enough bedroom and living space to warrant 30 air-conditioning units.

The house has no garage; where such a structure would be expected is a generator room, a laundry and a “change room” for security guards. There is also surprisingly little natural light for a structure that features a tall glass dome as its only decoration.

Of everything else, though, there is a surfeit. Surveillance cameras inside and out overlook motion detectors. The three identical bars, one on each floor, are all well stocked — although one is heavier on the Johnnie Walker whisky.

The ground-floor dining room has space for 16 people, four more than the slightly more tasteful version on the top floor. The roof, which is nothing but a roof, the family maintains, is ringed by a dozen lights.

The big numerical problem is in the three kitchens. For religious purposes, everyone agrees, the house is built under a planning scheme that allows for two inter- connected kitchens for a one-family dwelling. But rich families that throw big parties need both kitch- ens and a little extra, the Guptas’ lawyer said.

“The current owners have religious requirements that require a separate kitchen for the preparation of meat and a separate vegetarian kitchen,” Mundell said. The third “is intended for snacks”.

There are also three monkey figurines arranged near the bottom of a spiralling staircase: one with its hands over its ears, the second with its hands over its eyes, and the third with its hands over its mouth. – Phillip de Wet