The Guptas have gone from nowhere to public enemy number one in an incredibly short time. Some allegedly because of their own doing. But it’s not nearly that simple. As our readers now know very well, to some of our political folk the truth is there to be moulded and folded to their own advantage. And the Gupta clan are about to start some moulding of its own. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
When anyone in South African politics uses the phrase “political conspiracy”, most hardened hacks reach for the bucket. Or laugh. But then they sober up a bit and think slightly harder. When it was appropriated by Jacob Zuma, many just ignored it. Then they laughed. Then they realised, after the Nicolson Judgment and Thabo Mbeki’s suspension of the national director of public prosecutions Vusi Pikoli, that perhaps there was something in it. Then those tapes emerged and it turned out Zuma wasn’t quite so wrong after all.
While history isn’t exactly repeating itself with the Gupta family, there is plenty bubbling under the political surface to consider.
Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta say they are just ordinary businessmen. They arrived here in 1993, after beginning their business empire in India. One of the reasons they say, was because at that time there was no red tape. There had been an attempt to set up shop in China, but South Africa seemed easier. The brothers are now South African citizens, while obviously keeping some links with their relatives still in India. They say they have made their pile honestly, that that R50 million pad in Saxonwold was bought with cash they slaved to earn. Much of the money seems to have come through Sahara Computers. There’s also Sahara Holdings which seems to control the various firms. It alone has an annual turnover of more than R2 billion. They readily point to the decision in 2007 not to bid for government business, because they realised it could look bad, that they were getting favours because of their proximity to Zuma.
But their real problem seems to come in the shape of Zuma’s son, Duduzane. Duduzane Zuma is a tall good-looking 28 year old. While he’s often described as media-shy, he’s actually quite confident, the kind of guy who always holds out his hand and says “howzit”. He’s even been known to rip off the outcues of certain radio journalists when he bumps into them. And recently his name has cropped up whenever you hear the name Gupta. It seems wherever they’re making money, so is he.
The real problem he presents for the family is this. He’s a part of that Arcellor Mittal SA deal that revolves around the prospecting right for the Sishen Mine. It’s a real mess, but for some reason it’s possible to get a right to prospect on a piece of land that’s already being mined. That right was awarded to an off-the-shelf company, which, in a flash of backroom wizardry Arcellor Mittal offered to buy for more than R1 billion. It was part of a BEE deal that includes Duduzane Zuma. So now we have a 28 year old involved in an overnight billion-rand deal. And in terms of qualifications, as he told Talk Radio 702’s John Robbie on Tuesday morning, he has a background in IT. And that’s not the only one, the Mail and Guardian reported on Friday about his “Steel of a Deal”, with a Chinese company that’s worth even more.
There cannot be too many people his age involved in deals of this magnitude. In fact, if you didn’t create Facebook, you’re pretty much out of Duduzane Zuma’s league.
So then what does Duduzane Zuma bring to the party that makes him a unique asset to the Guptas? Why is he living in their compound? While he’s a very clever guy, there are plenty of those around. While he might be a good dealmaker, there are other people without a surname that could in time be a handicap. Surely, it must be because he brings something that no one else does. It must be because his is a name that opens doors.
The Guptas and Duduzane Zuma both say the links between them have only become a public issue since Jacob Zuma became president. They claim the links were forged long before 2009. But that’s not an argument that will hold water. Jacob Zuma was elected chairman of the ANC back in 1994, and became ANC deputy president in 1997, when his son was just 17. For the Guptas to claim that Zuma only began to have influence recently simply doesn’t wash. And let’s not forget, they weren’t the only business people trying to get close to Zuma at the time.
Whether that is true or not clearly doesn’t matter to Julius Malema. In case you’ve forgotten he was the guy who stole the show at the ANC’s local government election manifesto launch on Sunday when he said, “This is not a families of democracies…there are families who are exploiting…in the name of freedom”. It was aimed at President Zuma through the Guptas. It was about looking for a way to hurl a precision missile at Zuma without annoying anyone else who’s politically powerful. It was a way of reminding people about Zuma’s legal problems of the mid-2000s, without being too specific.
Those comments could have been part of a calculated campaign. The anti-Gupta volume has been growing in recent weeks. The very day the Sunday Times reported on “concerns at the top of the ANC” about the alleged influence of the family. All of this provided a useful set of ingredients to mix into an anti-Zuma cocktail. There would appear to be some people who have an interest in making sure the name Gupta doesn’t leave the headlines. By hurting them, they hurt Zuma. And even if they’re not going to run against him in 2012, it still suits a baron to have a weak king.
The Guptas have obviously realised this and that’s why we’re seeing so much of them in public at the moment. Going live on Talk Radio 702 was a risky move, but it seems to have paid off for them. On Monday they met Cosatu after the trade union federation said it wanted to conduct its own investigation into the family. That was masterstroke. Just by suggesting the meeting, some of the sting was removed from relations between the family and the trade union federation.
The real problem is no matter how much PR the Guptas do to tell the world they’re pure as the driven snow, it’s now in the interests of some serious political players for them to be painted otherwise. And no matter whether they are guilty of using a president’s son for their own ends, or just of making friends inadvisably, they’re in for a rocky ride as a result. DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter.
Photo: Atul Gupta.