As contract workers at Gupta-controlled Optimum coal mine remain unpaid, eldest Gupta brother Ajay regularly flits by helicopter between Midrand and the mine in Mpumalanga.
Following increased speculation about the whereabouts of the Gupta brothers, sources told City Press’ sister newspaper, Rapport, this week that the helicopter landings were almost a “daily occurrence” in Pullen’s Hope, a neighbourhood near the mine.
Registration details show the Bell 407 helicopter belongs to Gupta-owned company Sahara Computers.
Among the passengers who landed at the mine on Tuesday were eldest Gupta brother Ajay and Ronica Ragavan, the chief executive of the Guptas’ holding company Oakbay Investments.
Both Ajay Gupta and Ragavan loom large in the asset forfeiture unit’s successful application for a preservation order of assets belonging to Estina, the Gupta-linked company that allegedly looted the failed Vrede dairy farm project.
Both Ajay and Ragavan are listed as directors of several Gupta-owned companies that received money syphoned from the project.
After the two landed – with bodyguards – on Tuesday, a contingent of other people accompanied them to Optimum’s offices.
A security officer tried to physically prevent photographer Elizabeth Sejake from taking pictures in the street outside the mine’s premises, shouting that she was not allowed to take photographs of the people who came out of the helicopter. He started pushing her around.
The passengers left in the helicopter a few hours later.
While Gupta and his senior staff were at the mine, 120 unemployed workers from Hendrina, about 15km away, protested in front of Optimum’s main entrance.
Xolani Nxumalo, the protesters’ spokesperson, said: “The owners [of the mine] are here. We want to attract their attention.”
He said they wanted to bring to the mine management’s attention that local people should be appointed by contractors on the mine and not workers from elsewhere.
“Some of us have been out of work for years, but we do not get the opportunity to work here,” Nxumalo said.
But there may be few jobs left on the mine.
One contractor to whom Optimum owes millions of rands removed the last of his earth-moving vehicles from the mine on Tuesday after not being paid for “months”. His lawyer’s letter was ignored.
At least 70 contract workers at the mine had to be laid off last week because they could no longer be paid.
Another contractor, whose firm does repairs to machines at Optimum, told Rapport that it issued a liquidation application to the mine through its lawyers in December.
In a last-minute bid to stop the liquidation, Optimum then paid them R11m.
He said in the past year he has been struggling to get paid by the mine, which “paid the small amounts, but not the big ones”.
A third contractor said he began struggling to get his invoices paid “especially” in September last year.
He and a group of other contractors work together to do maintenance and repair work on Optimum’s machines.
They are still waiting for the approximately R4.7m Optimum owes them.
“Earlier last year, for example, Optimum would pay properly for a month, and then everything would be like a dream, and the next month the money would come in bit by bit,” he said.
The man said that because of this some of his working vehicles and other equipment had been repossessed by the bank. And when contractors ask the mine’s management about their money, they are given excuses and promises.
“For example, the courts are blamed because the Guptas’ bank accounts have been stopped, or we are told to be patient until the money is released tomorrow or whenever,” he said, adding that the company even blames the SA Revenue Service for its contractors not being paid.
The man is now unable to pay his home’s R4 900 water account, his power was cut off last week and he can’t pay his children’s school fees. He has sold two TVs to get cash.
He is renting a house and has already received a notice from the owner that he and his family have to move out.
Oakbay did not respond to written enquiries this week.
The Gupta brothers also appear to be receiving special treatment from Eskom, after being allowed to pay off Optimum’s discounted fine for supplying low-quality coal to the power utility.
Optimum has been allowed to pay the fine off over 21 months and its last instalment is payable in December.
Eskom confirmed this week that Optimum has so far paid the “settlement amounts”.
This was after the fine was reduced from the R2.1bn sum imposed on Optimum’s former owners Glencore, which was forced to pay Eskom and that forced the mine into liquidation.
The fine, Business Day reported, was discounted by 88% to R255.4m.
The helicopter in which Ajay Gupta arrived at Optimum this week used to be branded with the Sahara logo.
In 2010 it caused a stir in the Guptas’ upmarket home suburb of Saxonwold after it landed illegally at the park at the Johannesburg Zoo.
In 2013 it was used to ferry guests from the Waterkloof Air Force Base to Sun City for the wedding of the Guptas’ niece, Vega.
Aviation sources said this week that it is usually flown out of Grand Central Airport in Midrand.
Gupta pilots also fly the helicopter.
Grand Central is a stone’s throw from Sahara’s Midrand headquarters, which also has a helicopter landing pad.