Fall of the Guptas

2018-02-18 06:01
Ajay and Atul Gupta speak to the City Press from the New Age Newspaper's offices in Midrand. (Muntu Vilakazi, Gallo Images, City Press, file)

Ajay and Atul Gupta speak to the City Press from the New Age Newspaper's offices in Midrand. (Muntu Vilakazi, Gallo Images, City Press, file)

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The good people of Saxonwold know very well when the Gupta family is in town.

It’s not because they see them enter or leave their massive compound, or are alerted to their presence by the roar of a sports car engine like the neighbours of Duduzane Zuma, who lives two blocks away.

It’s because, as they pass 5 Saxonwold Drive on their morning jog, they see their security guards. White security guards. When the family’s not in town, the black guards look after the palace. One of them, ironically a Mr Zuma according to the #GuptaLeaks, was once called a “monkey” by Rajesh, the youngest Gupta brother, when he didn’t come when he called him.

The white guards have been in place for the past month or so, since the start of the school year. They had to step aside this week as the Hawks raided the compound. It was once at the centre of power in South Africa, to which the president was summoned, to which ministers came running and where boards of state-owned companies were constituted.

When City Press published a photograph of elder brother Ajay at the family’s Optimum coal mine in Mpumalanga last week, he was in the company of a towering white bodyguard whom former employees of the family’s newspaper, The New Age, recognise well.

Sources close to the family’s lawyers told City Press last week that the white protectors regularly chauffeur the Gupta wives to their favourite Johannesburg shopping destination, Hyde Park corner, where they are dropped outside the Woolworths entrance. They are driven there in their luxury Land Rovers and BMWs, black in colour, with personalised registration plates.

It is odd, then, that this family – who famously demanded that only white waiters serve them and their guests at their niece’s lavish Sun City wedding in 2013 – have been glorified as the poster personalities of radical economic transformation by supporters of their once-powerful friend, former president Jacob Zuma.

Mzwanele Manyi, who bought the Guptas’ media empire Infinity Media in a “vendor-financed” deal, has been particularly vocal about how they were acting in the interests of the nation’s marginalised.

“The crime the Guptas have committed is to disrupt white monopoly capital in their eating [of money],” he told Cape Talk in May last year.

“I do not have a problem of a Guptaphobia. If you associate me with a Gupta, that does nothing to worry me because Guptas are not outlaws,” he said. Only “white monopoly capital media” had bad things to say about the family.

When he was Eskom chief executive in July 2016, Brian Molefe criticised the country’s banks for closing the family’s accounts. The Guptas were victims of a “kangaroo court”, he said.

Atul, the powerful middle brother who led the family’s media empire, appeared to be drinking the same Kool-Aid. On his personal website he claims to be a “philanthropist”, “corporate leader” and a “force for positive change in South Africa”. The website states that the Gupta family “because of their great love for South Africa ... is devoted to improving the country and the lives of its citizens by creating lucrative employment opportunities for South Africans and through various community initiatives”.

“The Guptas are also forerunners of black economic empowerment, in a country where diversity in the workplace has been a prevalent issue. The family also sponsors various social welfare projects that provide shelter, food and books to those in need,” it states.

How things have changed.

Atul has been known to play the victim, like his friend Zuma, who said in a television interview this week that his party’s decision to recall him was “unfair”, that he hadn’t done anything wrong, and that nobody in the ANC’s leadership had told him why he had to go.

Insiders at ANN7 and The New Age told City Press that at an executive meeting after news of the #GuptaLeaks emails broke last year, Atul complained bitterly. He said he’d done nothing wrong, had “never taken a cent out of South Africa” and that nobody would arrest or charge him or his family. At the meeting, Ajay nodded in agreement.

Fast forward to this week, and Ajay is on the run, according to the Hawks. There’s a warrant of arrest for Atul. Law enforcement agencies have reportedly engaged foreign governments to help find them.

Last week, an unfazed Ajay alighted from Sahara Computers’ helicopter, seemingly unconcerned that the employees of contractors who work at Optimum coal hadn’t been paid because the Guptas hadn’t paid their bosses. Many are now without work, struggling to pay school fees, to put food on their tables and keep their homes. The same evening, he was on an Emirates flight out of the country, according to City Press’ sister newspaper, Rapport.

So much for the Gupta family’s “great love for South Africa”.

There have been vastly differing reports this week about where the brothers are. On Thursday, the Times of India reported that while their Saxonwold compound was being raided on Wednesday, Ajay and Atul were attending a Hindu festival in their home town of Saharanpur, where they built a Hindu temple in honour of their late father.

Their cousin Pradip Agarwal told the newspaper on Wednesday: “The two elder brothers of the family, Ajay and Atul, were here on Tuesday, but left on the same day. I am not aware of their whereabouts now ... They visited about a fortnight previous to this visit too.”

Agarwal was reportedly shocked to learn that the family’s home had been raided: “What raid? We are not aware of any raid. When did it happen? They behaved as normally as ever during this visit.”

While the brothers Gupta apparently still enjoy their jet-set lifestyle, they have left their minions to take the fall for them.

Their nephew Varun was the only member of the family who appeared in the Bloemfontein Commercial Crimes Court this week in connection with the looting of the failed Vrede dairy farm in the Free State, which saw the province lose R250 million meant to help poor farmers. About R10 million of that allegedly went straight into Atul’s bank account. The others in the dock were at the operational heart of the empire: Nazeem Howa, Ronica Ragavan and Ashu Chawla – the current and former chief executives of their businesses. If the #GuptaLeaks are anything to go by, they did more booking of flights and hotels for the Guptas and their lieutenants than the average travel agent. They were all released on bail of R200 000 each and will appear in court again in August.

The once-mighty Gupta empire appears now to have fallen.

On Friday, News24 reported that Sahara Computers, their first business in South Africa, had closed and the family and their associates were trying to sell its offices, owned by their property holding company Islandsite Investments, for R50 million. Two of Sahara’s sister companies, Annex Distribution and Sahara Systems, closed down months ago.

The Guptas appear to have given up fighting their public relations battles. The website WMCLeaks, which Huffington Post reported was established by a former Sahara employee, once carried smear campaigns against journalists and the family’s detractors, painting them as white monopoly capital’s stooges. It last posted to Facebook on November 27.

Having seen the writing on the wall, the Gupta brothers, who once professed to so love South Africa, appear to have fled.

Read more on:    gupta family  |  crime  |  gupta emails  |  gupta leaks  |  corruption

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