Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene this week admitted to having a series of engagements with one of former president Jacob Zuma's favourite families, the Guptas, who are at the centre of the state capture network in South Africa.
He told the commission of inquiry into state capture on Wednesday that he first became suspicious of the Guptas in 2013, after National Treasury launched an investigation into the Estina dairy farm in the Free State, believed to have been a money laundering operation for the family. In that same year Nene, then deputy finance minister, declined an invitation to attend the lavish family wedding at Sun City, which was preceded by the infamous landing at Waterkloof Air Force Base.
But Nene seemingly didn’t see the need to urgently review his relationship with the Guptas, even after they became synonymous with various questionable dealings, and proceeded to visit the family at their Saxonwold pile twice in 2014, then as finance minister.
And, in an interview with eNCA in May 2016, when asked about the Guptas, he only admitted to bumping into them, preferring not to say that he had met them at their home. In the interview he said: "Look, I bumped into them at public gatherings once or twice, but I’ve never had an engagement (with them) and I’ve never been asked by them to do anything for them."
Nene told the commission that he declined the 2013 wedding invitation, saying it would have been "inappropriate" to attend.
But he later said that he saw "no harm to honour an invitation" by Ajay Gupta to visit Saxonwold in 2014. "Look, I thought I should not be influenced by the investigation (into Estina), which was not completed… it was about managing the relationship… I cannot all of a sudden stop talking to them," he told advocate Paul Pretorius.
Mapping Nene’s testimony against a timeline of publicly available information at the time shows the minister met with them while their relationship with Zuma and the state was already being questioned from various quarters – with the two meetings in 2014 being particularly troublesome.
Government insiders, who are well disposed towards Nene, say that Zuma introduced the Guptas to various ministers and other high-ranking officials, and that this was especially prevalent during Zuma’s first term between 2009 and 2014. Initially, they say, the Guptas weren’t considered toxic.
In total, Nene seemed to have at least 10 contact sessions with the Guptas, with most of these happening in the period when he was deputy minister of finance during Zuma’s first term. However, he visited Saxonwold twice when he was minister of finance.
Nene testified that he first met the Guptas in his capacity as deputy minister of finance at a reception after the State of the Nation Address. He saw them sit at the main table alongside Zuma. "They were regular attendees at government events," he said. Zuma delivered his first State of the Nation Address in June, shortly after the May elections.
In the same year, a company called Imperial Crown Trading won the mining rights for the Sishen iron ore mine. It was worth billions of rand.
Nene says he visited the Guptas at the Sahara Computers head office in Midrand twice that year.
"They marketed themselves as good corporate citizens, that they do not do any business with the state and they pay their taxes. They indicated that they were in the computer and mining industries," Nene said, and added that Ajay Gupta styled himself as an "economist" and an "advisor" to the president. He also served on the International Marketing Council, promoting the country’s image abroad.
In March, the Guptas acquired 50% of Imperial Crown Trading, who became embroiled in a legal battle with Kumba about the rights to mine Sishen.
In July, the Guptas launched The New Age, a newspaper that openly and actively supported the ANC and government. It was also heavily reliant on state advertising and sponsorship deals with parastatals.
2009 to 2014
Nene testified that he visited the Guptas at Saxonwold on four separate occasions while he was deputy minister finance during this period. "I regarded the visits as one of my tasks as deputy minister to engage with different stakeholders in the economy. The visits were short and initially were to discuss the economy."
Later discussions centred around The New Age newspaper and The Thinker, a magazine funded by the Guptas and edited by Essop Pahad, a confidante of former president Thabo Mbeki.
Between 2011 and 2012 government advertising spending on The New Age increased markedly, Treasury’s Andrew Gililand testified before the state capture commission.
Nene again visited the Guptas in Midrand, this time before the launch of their ANN7 television news channel in August. "They indicated they wanted to present a different perspective in their media, to shift it away from the undue criticism of the ANC, to a more balanced perspective and to discuss the economy," Nene said.
It was also the year when Nene declined an invitation to the Sun City family wedding, believing it would be "inappropriate". It was held in May.
A few weeks before, in April, the Guptas’ chartered plane landed at Waterkloof Air Force Base filled with family guests attending the wedding. It caused a national outcry and led to an angry demand by the then-secretary general of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, for a full investigation.
Nene testified that, in 2013, he "became suspicious" of the Guptas for the first time, because Treasury had launched an investigation into Estina.
In December, the Consitutional Court found against the Guptas in the matter between Imperial Crown Trading and Kumba.
Nene told Deputy Chief Justice Ray Zondo that he had met the Guptas twice in 2014, after he replaced Pravin Gordhan as minister of finance in May.
According to his statement, he went to Saxonwold in August and November that year, where the Guptas shared their displeasure with the PIC and the terms of its deal with Iqbal Survé. The latter’s Sekunjalo Investments bought the Independent newspaper group from its Irish owners the year before.
According to Nene, he explained the circumstances of the deal to the Guptas and "was never requested to do anything to benefit the Gupta family or Ajay Gupta, nor was I offered any inducement".