The most wanted witness in Parliament’s inquiry into the naturalisation of the Gupta family was not there.
Ashu Chawla’s whereabouts remain unknown and the explanation his lawyer has given to MPs eagerly anticipating his testimony is suspicious.
Chawla is believed to be the man at the centre of the Guptas’ alleged capture of the department of home affairs. Through a network of yes-men, visas appeared to be fast-tracked for Gupta employees,and four members of Ajay Gupta’s family received approval for early naturalisation in South Africa.
Chawla has been a South African citizen for 17 years.
The portfolio committee on home affairs began the second phase of its inquiry into the naturalisation of the Gupta family on Wednesday. Much of what has already been said to the inquiry was revealed last year in the #GuptaLeaks emails.
But there were some startling details. In a letter sent to Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, Chawla made representations that Angoori Gupta (Ajay’s mother), Kamal Kant Singhala (Ajay’s son), and Surya Singhala (another son) should be granted early naturalisation because of the “significant investments” the family’s company, Oakbay, has made in South Africa “over many years”.
The Gupta family has been accused of extensively looting public coffers in their capture of the state, but Chawla said the family had made valuable contributions to assist young, impoverished schoolchildren in the North West.
Chawla wrote in April 2015: “Another ongoing project, which we are very proud of, is our school feeding scheme whereby [sic] we support in the suburbs where we operate by providing stationery kits, school uniforms and a takeaway lunch for every pupil at the school! Many of the kids have told us that these meals are the first time they ever had something like KFC!”
After this representation was made, the three Gupta family members as well as Ajay Gupta’s wife, Shivani Gupta, were granted early naturalisation.
On Thursday, home affairs officials said there was nothing suspicious about Chawla making representations on behalf of the Gupta family members but confessed that they never verified the alleged investments that Chawla said the family had made.
The contributions to North West primary schools have now also been linked to a competition that Gupta-linked company JIC Mining held among schools in the province, where pupils were invited to design an invitation to the infamous Gupta wedding at Sun City in 2013. They were given “cash prizes” and sports kits for their designs.
Chawla also managed to sway home affairs official Gideon Christians,who worked in the New Delhi mission,to expedite visas for people coming to South Africa from India as the Gupta-owned TV channel ANN7 was preparing for its launch. The visas were completed within hours.
On Wednesday night, after hearing that committee chairperson Hlomani Chauke was considering summoning Chawla to appear, the Gupta lieutenant’s lawyer made contact. Chauke said he indicated that Chawla was in India and would be unavailable until November.“He said all correspondence will have to be communicated via his lawyer.”
But Chawlais not allowed to leave the country. He was ordered by a magistrate to surrender his passport as part of his bail conditions in relation to the Estina dairy case in the Free State.
Chauke has vowed that Chawla will be found. In the meantime, the inquiry continues to hear of the havoche wreaked in home affairs.