Spin or not? I'll get an H for state capture, says Gupta firm CEO

Cape Town – Oakbay Investment CEO Nazeem Howa flatly denied that the Gupta-owned company was involved in “state capture”.

The African National Congress announced recently that it would investigate the Gupta-owned companies to test allegations that they use political influence to score government business contracts.

The Guptas, who are close family friends with President Jacob Zuma, have been accused of selecting ministers for Zuma to appoint based on promises they will assist the Guptas in their business dealings.

While Howa said Oakbay’s 2015 results reveal only 1% of their turnover comes from government, reports indicate that  the Guptas have their sights on Transnet and Eskom contracts. Many board members on these state-owned entities are reportedly linked to the family.

Howa was speaking on the breakfast show on SABC 2 on Wednesday, which focused on state capture. The show is sponsored by the Gupta-owned companies New Age newspaper and JIC Mining Services.

It is not clear whether this appearance was part of a new public relations strategy, as the famous UK firm Bell Pottinger recently took on the Guptas as a client.

Formed by “The Ultimate Spin Doctor” Tim Bell, who helped Margaret Thatcher become prime minister in 1979 with his “Labour Isn't Working” campaign, Bell Pottinger is known for taking on controversial figures.

Clients have included FW de Klerk, when he ran against Nelson Mandela in 1994’s first democratic elections, Rebekah Brooks, amid the News of the World phone-hacking crisis, arms conglomerate BAE Systems, and Oscar Pistorius, after he killed Reva Steenkamp.

It fames itself on working for people “who want to tell their side of the story", the UK-based Guardian reported.

Victoria Geoghegan, a partner at Bell Pottinger, told Fin24 on Thursday that the firm "does not comment on client contracts" when asked to elaborate on its work with the Guptas.

Getting an H in state capture

“If you were my teacher and you were to grade me on state capture, I think I would get an H,” Howa told SABC 2.

“I think it (state capture) has become a side show,” he said. “The shareholders or any of our professional CEOs who run any part of our business have never spoken about its ability to capture state or appoint ministers.

“One would then have to assume that we have a puppet government in place to say that we can influence any particular leader,” he said. “I don’t believe that any of our leaders can be called a puppet in any way.

“We’re primarily business people,” he said. “We want to do business, we don’t want to get involved in politics.”

The former Independent News and Media executive director said Oakbay has been targeted because it has been a disruptor in various established markets.

He identified three stages of disruption: The launch of Sahara Computers in the IT retail sector, the launch of The New Age in the media industry and the recent acquisition of Optimum from Glencore in the coal industry.

Criticism of Gupta businesses

The latter two stages have gained criticism due to links with government, with the New Age receiving more government advertising spend than other media houses without reporting any circulation figures.

Zuma’s son, Duduzane, is a major shareholder in the new Optimum deal through Tegeta and there are allegations that the Guptas influenced the appointment of Mines Minister Mosebenzi Zwane in 2015.

The Sunday Times reported that Zwane met with Glencore CEO Ivan Glasenberg last year at the Dolder Grand Hotel in Zurich to facilitate the sale of the mine, Bloomberg reported. “A delegation representing the Guptas left Zurich on December 2, the same day Zwane departed.”

The ANC said it would investigate claims of Gupta state capture after Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas and former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor claimed the Guptas offered them ministerial roles.

Furthermore, ex-GCIS CEO Themba Maseko claimed the Guptas demanded he meet them to ensure The New Age could get government advertising. The Guptas have denied all allegations and welcomed the investigation.

Oakbay welcomes investigation

"We welcome this process, which should ultimately allow the truth to be recognised and end this current trial by innuendo and slander. We will fully co-operate with the office of the secretary general during the information gathering process," Oakbay Investments said in a statement in March.

Howa told SABC that with the acquisition of Optimum coal mine, Oakbay and subsidiary Tegeta will only supply 5% of Eskom’s total coal supply. “Four other companies supply 80% of Eskom’s total coal,” he said. “We really are nothing in terms of doing business with the state.”

Following reports that KPMG, Absa, Sasfin Capital and FNB had cut ties with the Gupta-owned businesses, Oakbay released a statement on Wednesday slamming the most recent decision by FNB.

"Oakbay Investments demands an explanation from Mr Jacques Celliers, the head of First National Bank, for the closing of the company’s accounts," the company said. "Oakbay has received no reason whatsoever justifying FNB’s actions."

WATCH: The interview with Howa

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