Anxious week for 300 staff of VR Laser

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Pieter van der Merwe
Pieter van der Merwe

Johannesburg - It will be an anxious week for 300 employees of VR Laser (VRL).

The Gupta-linked firm will be fighting a desperate court battle to keep at least one of its bank accounts open.

Pieter van der Merwe, the CEO of the business, this week told Rapport: “Me and my personnel are focusing on our work and on that which we can control.

I don’t want to speculate as to what will happen [if this week’s court application against the Bank of Baroda (BOB) is not successful].”

VRL is a Oakbay group companies – all linked to the Guptas to a greater or lesser degree – which will this week bring an urgent court application against BOB.

BOB notified the companies in March that their accounts would be closed from the end of August.

Absa, First National Bank, Standard Bank and Nedbank have all shut down the group’s accounts.

The Bank of China followed suit, three weeks after VRL opened an account with them.

“BOB is our last bank. A company can’t do business without a bank account. You need it for tax purposes and you need it if you want to tender for any contract.

"Without a bank account, you are not allowed on Treasury’s central database of suppliers,” Van der Merwe said.

“I don’t have a problem with steps being taken against any company where there are merits [for doing so]. I do have an issue with a blanket approach where thousands of innocent employees have to bite the bullet for political reasons.

“My employees are not politicians. They just want to earn a salary and do their job with pride.

"I get furious when I hear an uninformed politician breaking VRL down - purely to score political points. They ignore the blood, sweat and tears of, in my case, 300 hardworking people.”

VRL was meant to benefit from a multimillion-rand contract for the manufacture of about 250 armoured vehicles for the defence force.

A joint venture with Denel was also set up for the establishment of Denel Asia. One of the Guptas’ lieutenants was the sole proprietor of VRL Asia.

A week ago, Denel said it was terminating the partnership because of the negative publicity around it.

Denel earlier this year dragged former finance minister Pravin Gordhan and Treasury to court as a result of the latter’s decision not to approve the partnership.

According to Van der Merwe, the announcement does not affect VRL because all its local contracts are separate from those of the partnership.

“VRL managed to grow over the past few months, despite the negative perceptions. Contracts from the mining sector and elsewhere are now bringing in more than the defence sector.

“It’s not easy and our banking problems are a logistical nightmare. BOB is not a commercial bank and has no internet banking facilities.

“A transaction that takes a minute at a normal bank takes us days.”

In the earlier court case between Denel and Treasury, Lungisa Fuzile, former Treasury director general, stated in an affidavit that VRL was “technically insolvent”.

In another development, the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) this week laid charges of corruption against Denel chairman Dan Mantsha over his involvement in state capture.

“Dan Mantsha sold out his country to pay his municipal bill,” Outa’s Ben Theron said.

“He tried to give the Guptas access to South Africa’s defence technology business, thereby handing them billions of dollars in lucrative deals.

"He shared confidential government documents with the Guptas and took favours from them in trips to India and Dubai.

“Why is a man like this still allowed to chair the Denel board? ... The Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown should fire him.”

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