Deputy Public Enterprises Minister Ben Martins may not be friends with the Guptas but he sees nothing wrong with having a cup of tea with them.
“There is nothing preventing me from meeting with anybody. I could have tea with Mr Duduzane Zuma, I could have tea with Tony Gupta but, if there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing wrong. There’s freedom of association in this country,” Martins told the Mail & Guardian this week.
Less than an hour earlier, he had tried to distance himself from the Gupta family while testifying to the parliamentary portfolio committee on public enterprises.
“Mr Gupta has never been my friend. Within the remit of my responsibilities as a minister and deputy minister, you meet many people. If they make requests, where reasonable and possible, you can do so. But under no circumstance can I say Tony Gupta is a friend of mine,” Martins said.
The committee is investigating allegations of maladministration and corruption at Eskom and called Martins to testify to “clear his name”, after the former chief executive officer of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) Lucky Montana alleged that Martins facilitated a meeting with the Guptas.
Martins surprised the committee when he admitted he had arranged a meeting between Montana and the controversial family patriarch, Tony Rajesh Gupta.
It was held at Martins’s official residence in Pretoria in 2012 while he was transport minister and they discussed a Prasa tender for the purchase of rolling stock. It was also attended by President Jacob Zuma’s son, Duduzane, who Martins was not surprised to see because he and the Guptas were known business associates, he said.
On Tuesday, Montana said Martins had arranged the meeting to persuade Prasa to include the Guptas in the deal. Montana also alleged that Martins and the Guptas had discussed changes to the Prasa board.
The deputy minister on Wednesday denied these allegations and claimed he had arranged the meeting because Gupta had threatened to challenge the rolling stock tender process in court, and called to ask a series of technical questions.
“I asked him for an opportunity to brief the CEO on his query before he goes to court,” Martins said.
He insisted such a request was not unusual and justified arranging the meeting between Montana and Gupta at his home by saying it was informal.
Montana alleged that Gupta made a veiled threat at this informal meeting. “The behaviour of Tony Gupta and Duduzane Zuma was shameless. They were effectively saying they will look after me; I won’t be the Prasa CEO forever; something’s waiting for me in Dubai.”
This was also denied by Martins, who said he met Montana to discuss the Prasa board before Gupta and Zuma arrived at his home, and that he assured the then Prasa chief executive that he would resist attempts to sack him and Sfiso Buthelezi, former Prasa board chairperson.
“At the time, there were rumours about the impending removal of Mr Montana and Mr Buthelezi … I said I would not allow myself to be unduly influenced into removing them. I told them that, if they left, I would also be removed with them,” he told the committee.
Martins acknowledged that the perception of the Guptas being corrupt is now widespread but he said he had always viewed them as nothing more than business people looking to expand their Sahara Computer company. He was not convinced they held undue influence on the state.
“That will have to be proved. I don’t have any proof … and I can only speak for myself,” he told the M&G. “I am a trained lawyer and I believe in the principle that he who alleges must prove. So, in regard to the family, they must be charged and a court of law will decide if they are corrupt or not. ”
The informal meeting at his official residence was not the first time Martins had come into contact with the Guptas. He acknowledged to the committee that he had attended a food fair at the Guptas’ Saxonwold residence in his private capacity.
In 2013, he was contacted by Tony Gupta and asked to arrange a welcoming parade to receive their guests from India when they stepped off the plane at OR Tambo Airport, he said.
Asked why he did not alert the Hawks and the department of home affairs after learning about the Guptas’ intentions for the wedding in 2013, Martins said that was not his job.