Zumas and the Guptas

Three brothers from India have close ties to the South African president — but are they too close for comfort?

Gulf News

The Guptas

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has been accused of allowing members of the Indian-born Gupta family to wield undue influence, with a deputy finance minister saying he was offered the job of finance minister by one of them. W Brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh — also known as Tony — Gupta, all in their 40s, relocated to South Africa from India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh in Saharanpur in 1993, just as white minority rule was ending and the country was opening up to the rest of the world. Family spokesman Haranath Ghosh says that their father, Shiv Kumar Gupta sent Atul to South Africa, believing that Africa was about to become the “America of the world” — the world’s land of opportunity.

It is said that when Atul arrived in what was then Africa’s largest economy and he set up the family business Sahara Computers, he was amazed at the lack of red tape compared to India.

The Sahara Group

They were small businessmen back home but their parent company Sahara Group — which has no links to the Indian giant of the same name — now has an annual turnover of about 2.62 billion rand (Dh691.53 million) and employs some 10,000 people.

‘The Zuptas’

The Zumas and the Guptas — ‘the Zuptas’ — have close ties

Bongi Ngema-Zuma, one of the president’s wives, used to work for the Gupta-controlled JIC Mining Services as a communications officer

Duduzile Zuma, his daughter, was a director at Sahara Computers

Duduzane Zuma, a son, was a director of some Gupta-owned companies but stepped down earlier this year following public pressure

The interests

As well as computers, they have interests in mining, air travel, energy, technology and media.

Atul says they met President Zuma more than 10 years ago “when he was a guest in one of Sahara’s annual functions”.

Although they do not figure on any continental rich list, there is no doubt that they are extremely wealthy.

Their heavily guarded family Sahara Estate in Johannesburg’s affluent Saxonworld suburb comprises at least four mansions which can be seen from the tree-lined avenue. The estate is now valued at about $3.4 million.

The complex even boasts a helipad, while the family enjoys the services of five personal chefs and regularly travels with bodyguards.

They also own the former Cape Town home of Sir Mark Thatcher, son of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Police escort

The family is accused of wielding enormous political influence in South Africa, with critics alleging that it is trying to “capture the state” to advance its business interests.

The perception grew in March 2016 when Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas said that a member of the family had offered to promote him to the minister’s post in 2015.

The Guptas denied making the offer, just as they denied an allegation by former African National Congress (ANC) MP Vytjie Mentor that she was offered the key post of Public Enterprise minister during a meeting at their Saxonworld mansion in 2010.

She claimed that Zuma was at the mansion when the offer was made.

Zuma has denied any “recollection” of the former backbencher, but the allegations, coming up at a time when he has been hit by other corruption scandals, have clearly knocked confidence in his leadership.

Wedding plans

The Guptas also found themselves at the centre of a political storm in 2013 after it emerged that a family plane carrying wedding guests landed at the Waterkloof Air Base near Pretoria. The base is normally reserved for visiting heads of state and diplomatic delegations.

The governing ANC concurred with the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) that this was a blatant abuse of power by a family that enjoys a cosy relationship with South Africa’s first family.

Atul Gupta, while insistent that the family had done nothing wrong, issued an apology.

He added that his family was “simply trying to give [our] daughter... a memorable wedding on South African soil”.

The wedding was between Vega Gupta, daughter of the brothers’ sister Achla, to Aakash Jahajgarhia, 24, a Delhi businessman.

The 200 guests, in a convoy of luxury vehicles, were given a police escort to the Sun City holiday resort in Rustenburg in the North West province.

Charter rights?

So what gave the Gupta family the confidence to even think of requesting to land their chartered Airbus A330 at a military air base?

Some believe it is because one of President Zuma’s wives, Bongi Ngema-Zuma, worked for the Guptas and that they reportedly paid for her Pretoria mansion. The Guptas deny paying for Ngema-Zuma’s home.

One of Zuma’s sons, Duduzane, was a director in some of the Gupta family companies until he stepped down in April because of what he described as a “sustained political attack”.

The president’s daughter Duduzile Zuma was appointed as a director of Sahara Computers in 2008, six months after her father was elected as ANC president, although she too has since resigned.

‘Ashamed’

The Sunday Times newspaper has reported that the Guptas once demanded to be given diplomatic passports, arguing that they regularly travelled with President Zuma on business trips abroad “promoting South Africa”, but the request was rejected.

The Department of International Relations and Co-operation did not deny the story, while a Gupta spokesman said the reports were “a determined drive to malign the family”.

It is not clear how much money, if any, the Guptas have donated to the governing party because political parties are not obliged to disclose donations, especially from private sources.

The Guptas courted his predecessor’s administration as well but ex-President Thabo Mbeki played a guarded game with the Guptas and the relationship did not go far.

And former DA leader Helen Zille has also enjoyed a “delicious” meal at the Guptas’ compound and received a donation for the party.

‘Corrupt cartel’

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party has called the family to leave South Africa, saying the country could not be held to ransom by a “corrupt cartel” with “mafia” tendencies.

However, the family has been strongly defended by some of Zuma’s close allies.

Deputy Defence and Military Veterans Minister Kebby Maphatsoe was quoted by South Africa’s City Press newspaper as saying that the Guptas owned less than 1 per cent of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and should be left alone.

“We met them and asked serious questions [of them], and they responded. These are South Africans, they are not whites. They do not take profits out of the country; they invest,” Maphatsoe said.

But there are deep divisions within the government over the family’s role and it is one of the reasons behind increasing calls for Zuma to step down.

Blacklisted

Amid the outcry, major banks said they would stop doing business with the Guptas.

In August 2016, the family said it would sell all its shareholdings in South Africa because this would be in the “best interests of our business, the country and our colleagues”.

If the family thought this would remove them from the limelight, they were wrong.

Finance Minster Pravin Gordhan has accused the family of being involved in “suspicious” transactions worth about $490m (£400m), which they deny.

The Gupta’s critics suspect that they want Gordhan ousted so that they can extend their influence to the ministry that controls the money.

The Guptas deny this — either way, they are unlikely to have bargained for such controversy when they moved to South Africa in 1993.

— Compiled from agencies, BBC

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