Nazeem Howa's love affair with Guptas' Oakbay - The End

Cape Town - It wasn't love at first sight when Cape Town-born Nazeem Howa was first approached to work for the wealthy and controversial Gupta family, who are at the centre of financial scandals involving President Jacob Zuma.

Now, what can be described as a tumultuous five years later, it would seem difficult to ascertain if any love is lost after the sudden resignation on Monday of Howa as chief executive officer of Oakbay Investments and non-executive director of Oakbay Resources and Energy [JSE:ORL].

Holding company Oakbay Investments includes coal mining firm Tegeta, Sahara Computers, JIC mining services, Clifftop safari lodge, television news channel ANN7 and the New Age newspaper.

READ: Nazeem Howa quits Gupta-owned Oakbay

"After a period of illness, Mr Howa has stepped down from his duties at Oakbay due to health issues and medical advice," Oakbay Investments announced.

"Based on medical advice Mr Howa has resigned for reasons relating to poor health," Oakbay Resources and Energy told shareholders.

Howa joined TNA Media as its chief executive officer in 2011, but he was hesitant, according to a 2010 report by Daily Maverick.

In an interview with the website, Howa stated that he was in discussions with Atul Gupta for about four months before he fully understood the vision of The New Age newspaper. Despite criticism of the paper being pro-Zuma and a mouthpiece for the ANC, Howa went on the describe the paper as "Proudly South African, yet fiercely independent".

'Howa is a lot like Marmite: an acquired taste'

Howa is a lot like Marmite, according to Europe editor at Jackie Cameron, who helped get the business website managed by veteran financial journalist Alec Hogg off the ground.

"People who have worked with Howa or have had dealings with him tend to either like him greatly or dislike him intensely – there’s no in between. Those who like him have seen a soft, kind side to Howa, a man who cares greatly about his employees and colleagues."

People who have had close dealings with Howa, added Cameron, have been surprised that it has taken him so long to distance himself from the Guptas.

Before joining TNA Media, Howa was the chief operations officer at Independent News & Media, responsible for newspaper operations. He was also involved in driving several of the centralisation initiatives within the group as well as heading its transformation project.

"He has played a key role in launching some of the Group’s newest titles including Isolezwe ngeSonto and Daily Voice. He has been central to the revamp of the Group’s websites and the launch of its online classified platform," the New Age website stated.

Some of the editorial positions Howa held include assistant editor of the Sunday Times, deputy editor of The Star and the Sunday Independent as well as editor of the Saturday Star.

Howa's resignation on Monday comes on the back of a damning founding affidavit Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan submitted to the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, seeking an order declaring that he is not empowered or obliged to intervene in a strained relationship between Oakbay companies and South Africa's big four banks.

Part of the affidavit includes a list of 72 suspicious transactions provided by the Financial Intelligence Centre in which the Gupta family’s company Oakbay was involved. Subsidiaries featured in the FIC report include Shiva Uranium, with transactions worth R968m, and Oakbay Investments, with transactions worth R781m.

HERE IT IS: The full list of 72 'dodgy' Gupta transactions

Several pages of correspondence between Howa and Gordhan were also included in the documents submitted to the court. Among these is a letter of apology from Howa for the way in which he came across when asking National Treasury to intervene when the banks - Absa, Standard Bank, FNB and Nedbank - terminated doing business with Oakbay Resources and Energy.

READ: Banks ditching Guptas: a knee-jerk reaction?

The banks, together with sponsors, severed ties with the Gupta-owned business at a time when the family came under pressure due to allegations that they had influenced President Jacob Zuma's appointment of Mines Minister Mosebenzi Zwane and former finance minister Des van Rooyen, as well as offering ministerial posts to Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas and former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor.

In the wake of these claims, the Guptas resigned from all business positions this year after they pulled out of their high-profile positions.

At the time brothers Ajay and Atul were the co-chairs of Oakbay Investments, while Atul was the chair of Oakbay Resources and Energy. Varun was the CEO of Oakbay Resources and Energy, while Zuma's son Duduzane was a director of Shiva Uranium. He also resigned.

READ: Guptas quit as company can’t pay staff without banks - letter

Although the Guptas have been dogged by allegations of holding sway over the president for their own means, the family has always vehemently denied this.

Oakbay Group attorney Gert van der Merwe told The New Age in a phone interview on Monday that the group is considering their position regarding further action and possibly opposing Gordhan's application.

READ: Guptas' Oakbay says only five deals on Gordhan list linked to them

Oakbay Resources and Energy Limited confirmed on Monday to shareholders that five of its transactions are implicated in the list of 72 transactions mentioned in Gordhan's affidavit. Claims that R1.3bn was paid from the Optimum Rehabilitation Trust are “untrue” and “defamatory”, Oakbay Investments said.

“The Rehabilitation Fund balance was moved from Optimum Mine Rehabilitation Trust's account with Standard Bank to Bank of Baroda in June 2016. This transfer was due to Standard Bank's closure of all company accounts,” the group stated. Oakbay said this was the only movement of money from the account, adding that it was shifted with the full permission of the joint Business Rescue Practitioners.

Gordhan's affidavit was submitted on the same day that outgoing Public Protector Thuli Madonsela was scheduled to brief the media on six reports, including the state capture report relating to the Gupta family. However, moves by Zuma and Local Government Minister Des van Rooyen to interdict the release of the report delayed its publication.

Although Howa's resignation comes at an interesting time, it will not have any financial or economic impact, noted a source who spoke to Fin24 on condition of anonymity.

“The issue with Oakbay has never been with its managers, but rather the people behind the company.”

David Maynier, DA spokesperson on finance, said Howa probably “cracked” under pressure.

Howa: I look forward to the day SA admires Oakbay

Nevertheless, Howa remained positive about Oakbay Investments, saying it will be recognised as a company that South Africa needs.

"It has been a honour and a privilege to lead such a talented group of co-workers," he said in a statement. "In time, Oakbay will be recognised as the type of company South Africa needs: innovative, job-creating, tax paying and law-abiding. I look forward to that day."

Oakbay financial director Ronica Ragavan will assume the role of acting CEO, while the company searches for a permanent successor.

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