The recluse be­hind state cap­ture

Although he comes across as a nin­com­poop, it has been rel­a­tively easy for Ajay Gupta to dis­fig­ure SA pol­i­tics

The Witness - - INSIGHT - FERIAL HAFFAJEE • Ferial Haffajee is ed­i­tor­at­large, Huf­fPost South Africa. — Huf­fPost SA.

REAMS have been writ­ten about the au­da­cious story of how the sim­ple­ton Gupta fam­ily came to South Africa, ripped off a na­tion and dis­fig­ured its pol­i­tics. But an im­age pub­lished this week in Huf­fPost’s sis­ter ti­tle, Rap­port, re­ally sticks in my craw, for it tells the story in a sin­gle shot.

Taken by pho­tog­ra­pher El­iz­a­beth Se­jake, the im­age fea­tures the old­est Gupta brother, Ajay, at the Op­ti­mum mine they prac­ti­cally hi­jacked.

With him is their fam­ily’s hold­ing com­pany Oak­bay’s CEO, Ron­ica Ra­ga­van, along with burly white se­cu­rity guards and var­i­ous flunkies.

Op­ti­mum, the pur­chase of which was funded by a pre­pay­ment from Eskom, is out of cash and not pay­ing its con­trac­tors. So Gupta and Ra­ga­van landed there last week by chopper.

It says that af­ter months and months of rev­e­la­tions, de­tail­ing how the Gup­tas set about state cap­ture by hon­ing in on state­owned com­pa­nies and by lever­ag­ing their re­la­tion­ship with Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma, the fam­ily is still hus­tling in South Africa as if they are le­git­i­mate busi­ness­peo­ple.

Yet we now know that their books were dodgy, as KPMG faces mul­ti­ple in­quiries into how it gave them a clean bill of health in suc­ces­sive au­dits.

It tells you that the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem cranks along too slowly — in a coun­try where the rule of law was work­ing ef­fec­tively, they would have been in jail or back home in Sa­ha­ran­pur, In­dia, keep­ing a beady eye out for the long arm of the law reach­ing for them.

They op­er­ate with im­punity and al­ways have, treat­ing our coun­try like a fief­dom.

WHAT’S WITH BE­ING SUR­ROUNDED BY WHITES?

Since I first went to in­ter­view the fam­ily at their Sa­hara com­put­ers head of­fice in Midrand in 2012, it’s struck me that they seem to dis­trust black peo­ple in their clos­est re­la­tion­ships, and pre­fer be­ing served by white peo­ple. The im­age re­ferred to re­veals that all their se­cu­rity guards are in­evitably white guys, and their sec­re­taries are most of­ten white women. I al­ways found this an odd em­ploy­ment prac­tice for a fam­ily that says it is black, and which claims its busi­nesses are built as ex­em­plars of “what black em­pow­er­ment can be”.

Dur­ing the fam­ily’s block­buster wed­ding at Sun City in 2013, the #Gup­taleaks e­mails re­vealed they only wanted to be mas­saged, pum­meled and primped by white beauty ther­a­pists at the re­sort’s spa.

This prac­tice, I’d con­tend, is less about want­ing to over­turn racial ideas of who serves and who is served, but more about the per­ceived pres­tige of be­ing waited upon by white staff. For them, I think, it says “We have ar­rived”, in the same way that land­ing a pri­vate jet at Waterk­loof air force base ahead of the wed­ding would have done.

The im­age says a lot about how the ro­tund Gupta has op­er­ated since he came to South Africa in the nineties. For him, South Africa is a colony and black peo­ple mal­leable, all with a price on their heads. He treats the beloved coun­try as if it were a ba­nana repub­lic, where rich men with dosh toss it around to ex­tract mas­sive for­tunes through cap­ture and bribery.

He is the brother who of­fered for­mer deputy Fi­nance min­is­ter Mce­bisi Jonas the role of Fi­nance min­is­ter when Zuma was plot­ting to top­ple Pravin Gord­han. All Jonas had to do was their bid­ding, and he would get a cash de­posit and mil­lions more later, Ajay told him.

Jonas turned it down, and his rev­e­la­tion of­fered a fas­ci­nat­ing win­dow into how cyn­i­cally he built the fam­ily for­tune. An ex­gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial who spent a lot of time in Sax­on­wold told me years ago that he would al­ways joke with vis­i­tors: “Hey, you want to be a min­is­ter? I can make you a min­is­ter.” Ajay Gupta is said to be a bit of a recluse, and the younger brother, Atul, has of­ten been the face of the fam­ily, as he is more out­go­ing. What is not in doubt is that Ajay worked out the strat­egy of cap­ture. He is a com­merce grad­u­ate and has an hon­orary doc­tor­ate from JV Jain De­gree Col­lege, which is not an In­dian Ivy League in­sti­tu­tion.

Yet in a few in­ter­views, Ajay re­peat­edly comes across as a nin­com­poop and a sim­ple­ton. This in­fu­ri­ates me, as it means the bar­rier to cap­ture is set low in SA that it was this easy for a man of so lit­tle so­phis­ti­ca­tion and style to un­der­take the strat­egy that has harmed our coun­try and pol­icy.

In an in­ter­view with his lawyer at the end of last year, as he de­nied the ve­rac­ity of the #Gup­taleaks e­mails, Ajay said: “One more in­ter­est­ing thing, you please note it down. I never did e­mail in my life. I am il­lit­er­ate. I don’t know how to do the SMS, even, for­get about, even What­sApp or any­thing. My sec­re­tary re­ceives the e­mail and she opens it, she prints it and brings it to me if it comes to that.”

While Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma en­abled fever­ish ac­cu­mu­la­tion of sig­nif­i­cant wealth for the fam­ily, Gupta, for ex­am­ple, can­not even pro­nounce “Zuma”, which sounds like “Jooma” on his tongue. An­other cab­i­net mem­ber un­der their pa­tron­age, Min­eral Re­sources Min­is­ter Mosebenzi Zwane, is mas­sa­cred to “Jwane” when Gupta speaks about him.

The most fun­da­men­tal sig­nal of re­spect is to pro­nounce some­body’s name prop­erly, and the fact that Gupta has not even man­aged this re­veals how he sees these po­lit­i­cal lead­ers.

There is a fi­nal give­away that re­veals that for the old­est Gupta brother, the rule of law and in­tegrity in SA mean very lit­tle. We all know, graph­i­cally, that the fam­ily has built an ex­ten­sive em­pire of riches from their cap­ture of SA. Yet, here’s what Gupta told his lawyer at the end of last year as he be­gan pre­par­ing for a pos­si­ble ap­pear­ance be­fore a par­lia­men­tary in­quiry: “No, on record I can say that I am not a share­holder of any com­pany, I don’t have any as­sets in any part of the world, ex­cept the room my fa­ther used to sleep [in] ...

“I don’t have any share, any board [po­si­tion], any prop­erty, any fixed prop­erty, what­ever you call that. Maybe one car or some­thing, I only have that one room my fa­ther used to sleep [in].”

PHOTO: SUP­PLIED A NIN­COM­POOP

ABOVE: There’s not doubt that Atul Gupta worked out the strat­egy of state cap­ture.

PHOTO: EL­IZ­A­BETH SE­JAKE

RIGHT: Ajay Gupta and Ron­ica Ra­ga­van land­ing at Op­ti­mum coal mine in Mpumalanga on Tues­day.

RABINDRANATH TAGORE, BEN­GALI POET, 1861­1941

Love does not claim pos­ses­sion, but gives free­dom.

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