In his explosive new book, award-winning investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh has taken on the secretary-general of the ANC, Ace Magashule, by steadily unpicking an alleged ‘web of capture’ spun by the politician who was the Free State premier for almost a decade
By Pieter-Louis Myburgh
Penguin Random House
One warm Saturday morning in late 2013, Ace Magashule knocked on the door of Thabo Manyoni’s Bloemfontein residence. The arrival of the Free State premier at the home of the city’s mayor might ordinarily have drawn a fair amount of attention. But these were not ordinary circumstances. There were no bodyguards, no escort vehicles and none of the flashing lights that usually announce the arrival of top-level politicians like Magashule. The only clue that the visitor was someone important was the black, government-owned BMW SUV he was driving. The premier seemingly did not want any witnesses.
Manyoni had no clue why he had been asked to accompany his boss on a trip, he told me in an interview in mid-2018. Magashule had merely told him to be ready to travel to Gauteng for an important meeting. Perhaps the mayor thought he was going to be taken to Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters in downtown Johannesburg.
As they progressed northwards on the N1 highway, Magashule and Manyoni mostly talked shop. The 2014 national and provincial elections were around the corner, and both men would be required to help convince the bulk of the Free State’s nearly 1.5 million registered voters to once again gift their inky crosses to the ruling party. There was also the issue of the lists the party needed to compile of candidates it would send to the provincial legislature and the National Assembly after the elections. Issues such as these dominated the conversation during the four-hour drive, leaving Manyoni without any hints as to where they were going.
When they arrived at Johannesburg’s southern edge, Magashule steered the BMW X5 past the exits that led to the city’s CBD. Manyoni could now rule out Luthuli House as a possible destination. The premier instead continued driving up the M1, the national highway’s four-lane tributary that snakes through the city’s affluent, forested core.
Before they reached the point further north where the two highways again merge, Magashule took an off-ramp. The black BMW now cruised westward on one of the area’s wider, tree-lined roads. After a couple of turns, the premier and the mayor entered Saxonwold, a suburb where the top-floor windows of double-storey homes peeked over tall gates and walls.
Magashule slowed as they reached a particularly large property. It was protected by a white, spiked fence perched atop an already imposing wall. This concrete bulwark stretched down the road for what seemed like hundreds of metres. The premier turned the car on to a short, cobblestone driveway with a black gate. There was a guardhouse and several guards standing around, but the black SUV was promptly allowed on to the property. It seemed to Manyoni as if his boss had been there before.
They parked, and Magashule led the mayor up some steps and into the main entrance of one of the garish mansions that cluttered the expansive property. A male servant directed them to a sitting room with comfortable sofas. He also offered them tea, small cakes and cookies, a gesture that lent itself to what Manyoni perceived as a laid-back, informal atmosphere. But his comfort was short-lived. They had not waited long before a chubby character with black hair and a moustache made his entrance. Manyoni thought he recognised the man’s face. Before the mayor could figure out if he had seen the man before, Magashule introduced him as Atul Gupta.
“This is the person you will be working with,” Magashule told their host after giving Manyoni a brief introduction. The mayor did not know what that was supposed to mean, but his bafflement quickly gave way to disbelief as Magashule and Atul got into the details of a plan that had clearly been in the making for some time. Magashule explained that he would vacate his position as Free State premier not long after the elections. Apparently, he was due to be included in then president Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet as the new national minister of communications.
This was an important portfolio to Atul and his family, given their ventures in broadcasting and print media. The plan was for Manyoni to become the new premier of the Free State. Atul told Manyoni that he viewed the province as an important partner in his family’s businesses. He also boasted about the power and influence his family wielded within the ruling party and within Zuma’s government.
The Guptas donated a lot of money to the ANC, he said, including generous donations to the party’s coffers in the Free State. In fact, the Guptas could “invest” R400 million in a plan to bring Bloemfontein’s decommissioned coal-fired power station back to life. Some of this money could then be channelled towards the ruling party for the upcoming elections, Atul said. Their host’s swagger swelled as he continued to talk. “If we call any Cabinet minister right now, he or she will be here in an hour,” he boasted.
Then came one of the not-so-subtle threats that the Guptas would later become notorious for issuing during such conversations. “We have files on Cabinet ministers and other politicians in the basement,’ Atul told Manyoni.
The implication of this remark was not lost on the mayor. Government officials who refused to work with the powerful family would be dealt with by having their darkest secrets revealed to the world. All Manyoni had to do was “work with them” once he became premier, Atul said.
One of the projects in the metro that the Guptas had their eyes on was the R11 billion business and residential node that was going up near Bloemfontein’s airport, Manyoni was told. The family also desired more advertising revenue from Free State government departments and municipalities for their newspaper, The New Age. When Manyoni told him that these entities did not really have big advertising budgets, Atul responded: “It isn’t really about the money, it is about power.” Magashule chipped in now and then in an effort to persuade Manyoni to warm up to their host. It must have been obvious to him and Atul that the mayor was horrified. When the premier excused himself to go to the bathroom, Atul told Manyoni that his “body language” betrayed a lack of enthusiasm. “It doesn’t look like you want to work with us,” he observed.
Given Manyoni’s apparent unwillingness to play along, conversation soon fizzled – but not before Atul made one last attempt to persuade him to join their ranks. He produced a large A4 envelope stuffed with cash and handed it to the mayor. This was for “organisational work”, Atul told him. A shocked Manyoni quickly handed the envelope to Magashule. He wanted no part in their murky dealings. Magashule and Manyoni then took their leave and drove back to Bloemfontein.