THE GUPTAS AND THE ‘BOX OF GEMS’

Did the Guptas try to fly a case full of di­a­monds from the Op­pen­heimers’ pri­vate VIP ter­mi­nal? We in­ves­ti­gate . . .

CityPress - - Front Page - SU­SAN COM­RIE, AMABHUNGANE team@amabhungane.org

Six days af­ter the Gupta fam­ily in­fa­mously “fled” South Africa last year on a late-night flight, a sec­ond Gupta plane tried to leave with a box be­lieved to have been full of di­a­monds. On April 13, a Gupta busi­ness jet with tail num­ber ZS-AKG was pre­par­ing to de­part Fire­blade Avi­a­tion’s VVIP (very, very im­por­tant per­son) ter­mi­nal at OR Tambo In­ter­na­tional Air­port when X-ray scan­ners picked up some­thing sus­pi­cious inside a suit­case be­long­ing to the departing party.

In the suit­case was a box con­tain­ing what looked like stones – more pre­cisely, di­a­monds.

When Fire­blade se­cu­rity asked to see what was inside, a Gupta se­cu­rity staffer re­fused, took the bag from the counter and left.

This ver­sion of events was pro­vided by three in­de­pen­dent sources – two close to Fire­blade and one a se­nior mem­ber of South Africa’s se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment. The lat­ter claimed the prin­ci­pal pas­sen­ger was one of the three Gupta broth­ers.

Fire­blade this week con­firmed a “po­ten­tial se­cu­rity in­ci­dent” early one morn­ing in April last year, but would not iden­tify which client was in­volved.

A spokesper­son said: “One of the suit­cases caused our X-ray op­er­a­tor to have con­cerns. The op­er­a­tor had seen what he thought to be sus­pi­cious items inside the suit­case.

“He then asked the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the owner of the piece of lug­gage in ques­tion to open the suit­case for fur­ther in­spec­tion.

“Af­ter some dis­cus­sion the rep­re­sen­ta­tive … opened the suit­case, but de­clined a re­quest for a full ex­am­i­na­tion of the con­tents. [He] then took back the suit­case and re­moved it from the Fire­blade premises.”

The spokesper­son said Fire­blade im­me­di­ately re­ported the in­ci­dent to se­cu­rity at OR Tambo, where cus­toms of­fi­cers would have had to also check the air­craft be­fore takeoff.

At the time of go­ing to press, nei­ther the Air­ports Com­pany SA nor the SA Rev­enue Ser­vice, which is re­spon­si­ble for cus­toms, could con­firm what hap­pened next.

But his­tor­i­cal flight track­ing records show that, at around 8.45 that morn­ing, ZS-AKG, owned by the Guptas’ Is­land­site In­vest­ments 180, flew north­east from a po­si­tion near OR Tambo. It is un­der­stood that the plane re­fu­elled in Mobasa be­fore flying to Dubai.

The Guptas, via pub­lic re­la­tions firm Bell Pot­tinger, de­clined to com­ment.

At the time of their hur­ried de­par­ture from South Africa six days ear­lier, the Guptas de­nied re­ports they had moved large amounts of cash out of the coun­try.

But their late-night de­par­ture on April 7, the dis­cov­ery of their R458 mil­lion house in Dubai’s Emirates Hills, and al­le­ga­tions by Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers leader Julius Malema of mil­lions of rands in cash be­ing flown out of the coun­try on pri­vate planes have raised doubts.

Al­though the fam­ily said it planned to sell all busi­ness in­ter­ests in South Africa by the end of last year, this has not hap­pened and they have main­tained a par­tial pres­ence in the coun­try.

LUXURY TURF WAR

The Fire­blade ter­mi­nal is em­broiled in a turf war be­tween two pow­er­ful fam­i­lies – the Op­pen­heimers and the Guptas – and gov­ern­ment. Fire­blade, ma­jor­ity owned by the Op­pen­heimer fam­ily, was es­tab­lished to cater for VVIP guests land­ing pri­vate jets at OR Tambo.

To date, R260 mil­lion has been spent on the seven-star ter­mi­nal. To run suc­cess­fully, Fire­blade re­quires cus­toms and im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials on site, but af­ter state-owned arms com­pany Denel, which leases the premises to Fire­blade, back­tracked on com­mit­ments to sup­port the project, Home Af­fairs Min­is­ter Malusi Gi­gaba sus­pended his ap­proval.

“[Denel] went from be­ing ex­tremely sup­port­ive land­lords to ex­tremely ob­struc­tive land­lords – I have no idea why,” busi­ness mogul Nicky Op­pen­heimer told jour­nal­ists this week.

In Novem­ber, Fire­blade went to court to re­view Gi­gaba’s de­ci­sion. They ar­gued there was ev­i­dence that Gi­gaba had al­ready given his ap­proval for the project and only re­versed it when the new Denel board – al­leged to be sym­pa­thetic to the Guptas – raised what Fire­blade claims are spu­ri­ous se­cu­rity con­cerns.

GUPTA JETS EVICTED

At the same time, Fire­blade’s re­la­tion­ship with the Guptas soured.

A month af­ter the April 13 in­ci­dent, Fire­blade ter­mi­nated its busi­ness re­la­tion­ship with the Gupta com­pany that owns ZS-AKG, a Cessna 680 Ci­ta­tion Sovereign busi­ness jet. Fire­blade in­structed the com­pany, Is­land­site In­vest­ments 180, to re­move the plane from its hangars.

In a curt let­ter on May 12, Fire­blade op­er­a­tions di­rec­tor Robert Laing in­structed Ron­ica Ra­ga­van, act­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer (CEO) of Gupta hold­ing com­pany Oak­bay In­vest­ments, to “en­sure that all amounts ow­ing ... are paid in full” and “all move­ables and as­sets be­long­ing to Is­land­site In­vest­ments are re­moved from our premises” by June 30.

“One of the fac­tors in our de­ci­sion to ter­mi­nate both these agree­ments is the con­cern we have re­lat­ing to our rep­u­ta­tional risk...” the let­ter read. Ra­ga­van in­cluded Fire­blade’s ter­mi­na­tion let­ter in a sep­a­rate court dis­pute be­tween Fi­nance Min­is­ter Pravin Gord­han and Oak­bay.

Asked this week why Fire­blade cut ties with the Guptas, Op­pen­heimer would only say: “We didn’t ter­mi­nate their con­tract. It came up for re­newal [and] we de­cided not to re­new it.

“There was a lot of noise about the Guptas. There was also al­ready talk about them be­ing in­ter­ested – with­out any firm, con­clu­sive ev­i­dence – in what we do here. We just thought with the re­newal of the con­tract com­ing up, tak­ing into ac­count our rep­u­ta­tion, it would be sen­si­ble not to re­new it.”

STATE CAP­TURE CON­SPIR­A­CIES

In a web of un­re­lated court cases filed last year, two dis­tinct nar­ra­tives of state cap­ture emerged. In one, the Guptas claim they are the vic­tims of a con­spir­acy by a pri­vate sec­tor de­ter­mined to cut out a new com­peti­tor who threat­ens its en­trenched in­ter­ests.

On the other, Fire­blade and oth­ers claim the Guptas have used their prox­im­ity to power to be­come gate­keep­ers of state op­por­tu­ni­ties, forc­ing oth­ers to cut them in.

In Ra­ga­van’s af­fi­davit, she al­leged that, at a meet­ing in Jan­uary last year, Gord­han told var­i­ous CEOs that “steps must be taken to clip the wings of [the Gupta] fam­ily”.

“The min­is­ter’s state­ment re­sulted in a sud­den re­fusal of many South African com­pa­nies to con­duct busi­ness with any en­tity linked to the Gupta fam­ily,” Ra­ga­van stated.

At the same time, Fire­blade sug­gested in its court pa­pers that Denel’s sud­den in­tran­si­gence on its ap­pli­ca­tion was mo­ti­vated by the Guptas want­ing a stake in the fa­cil­ity.

In an af­fi­davit filed in the Pre­to­ria High Court in Novem­ber, Fire­blade man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Rob­bie Irons said while there was “[no] sug­ges­tion of min­is­te­rial cap­ture … Denel’s flip-flops ap­pear to be mo­ti­vated by un­law­ful or at least im­proper con­sid­er­a­tions”.

Irons said a pi­lot who worked for the Guptas ap­proached him with a mes­sage, al­legedly from Ra­jesh Gupta, that “Fire­blade had the wrong BEE [black eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment] part­ner for the project [and] were Fire­blade to change its BEE part­ner [to] an en­tity as­so­ci­ated with the Gupta fam­ily, Mr Gupta could guar­an­tee that the Fire­blade ap­pli­ca­tion would re­ceive min­is­te­rial ap­proval within three days and Fire­blade’s prob­lems would go away”.

Irons also al­leged a sec­ond pi­lot over­heard a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Ajay Gupta’s son, Kamal, and Denel CEO, Zwe­lakhe Nt­shepe, on a flight to In­dia in which Nt­shepe al­legedly said: “The Gupta fam­ily need not worry as Denel would en­sure that Fire­blade would not se­cure min­is­te­rial au­tho­ri­sa­tion.”

Nt­shepe filed an an­swer­ing af­fi­davit this month, say­ing these claims were “un­founded, scan­dalous, vex­a­tious, spu­ri­ous, speculative, defam­a­tory and ... a des­per­ate at­tempt on the part of Fire­blade to jump on the prover­bial band­wagon of pop­u­lar nar­ra­tives”.

He asked the court to have the com­ments struck out. Fire­blade is due to file a re­spond­ing af­fi­davit this week.

PHOTO: AVCOM.CO.ZA

The Gupta jet that was al­legedly in­volved in a cus­toms in­ci­dent

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