The Guptas are sick and tired of the press giving them a hard time. They claim information about the family business is misleading and unfounded. Daily Maverick offered Atul Gupta the chance to respond to questions about the close friendship with Zuma and other issues that have bedevilled the family’s businesses. Gupta’s written response is candid, but caveat lector, it obviously also includes a substantial amount of spin. By MANDY DE WAAL
The first time I met Atul Gupta was close to a year ago at Summer Place in Hyde Park, that lavish Marino Chiavelli creation now owned by casino magnate Solly Krok. Gupta was standing on the patio surrounded by a bevy of sycophantic journalists who were nodding in agreement with him about how awful the South African media was and how negative reporting was damaging nation building in this country. That was the media launch of Gupta’s newspaper The New Age and away from the gaggle of public broadcasters surrounding Gupta and obviously looking for green pastures the more cynical, independent press where whispering about the presence of Duduzane Zuma, Jacob Zuma’s son, at the launch.
It’s been an interesting 10 months since then which has seen Gupta and his family become the focus of unrelenting media attention. This because of the family’s friendship with Zuma, their business relationship with Duduzane and the growing tension that the Gupta factor is said to be having on the ruling party and its alliances.
The Guptas are fighting back against the negative press with some hard-hitting public relations of their own, which isn’t contained in the pages of The New Age. Daily Maverick wanted to sit eyeball to eyeball with Atul Gupta, but after a request for an interview was declined Daily Maverick was invited to send through a list of questions. Here they are – together with Atul Gupta’s answers.
Daily Maverick: Why did you move from India to South Africa – what were your personal hopes and dreams?
Atul Gupta: My family has always been entrepreneurial and as I was growing up I was sent by my father to work in China and Hong Kong. My father, who was quite a visionary, later identified South Africa which he believed offered great opportunity. I did not initially share my father’s vision and was very reluctant to leave India, but the reality I found is that South Africa is a great country with wonderful weather and infrastructure. South Africa has entrepreneurship both in the formal sector as well as in the informal sector.
DM: What were your economic hopes and dreams?
AG: To contribute towards a South Africa that is rapidly growing in economic influence, not only in Africa, but across the entire world. More importantly, I wanted to contribute in any way to ensure the political miracle of 1994 was followed by an economic miracle that would help us solve the issues of poverty, joblessness and all that it brings to our society.
DM: What is your business philosophy?
AG: I was fortunate to grow up in an environment where my father instilled in us great business values which remain at the core of our activities today. These (are) issues of morality and ethics in business and at all time[sic] ensuring that best practice prevailed.
DM: What are your views on governance, business ethics, and sustainability?
AG: Naturally we are in business for the long term and that requires us to have sustainable business plans. Our ethos requires us to have long-term strategic vision and we will never take short cuts around issues of governance and morality to ensure our sustainability. As a family we are committed to being good corporate citizens
DM: What opportunities does South Africa offer a businessman like you?
AG: On arrival it was clear to me that South Africa was trailing the world in terms of closing the digital divide and this shortfall was caused mainly by the lack of availability of aggressively priced information technology components. With that in mind, one of our first businesses was Sahara, which proved to be a great success due to several factors;
It is in challenging all of these notions that we were able to craft a business that appeared to be “different” to what the market was used to. Since the successes at Sahara, we have now ventured into the media environment with our first newspaper, The New Age, which we successfully launched on 6 December and is forcefully making its mark. Our vision is to grow from one newspaper into a broader media business.
DM: What role do you want to play in this country in terms of nation building and contributing to its socio-economic growth?
AG: In many ways South Africa’s great challenge is to close the gap between the rich and poor and that, in turn, needs job creation and education. Through Sahara we have made technology much more affordable and have created many, many jobs. The New Age has added to our desire for job creation and ensuring better diversity of information particularly to the more remote provinces. Today, we have more than 10,000 people employed across our various group companies. We hope that in some small way that has helped some people break the cycle of poverty and contribute towards the upliftment of our nation.
DM: Why do you believe you are portrayed the way you are in the South African media?
AG: That is a question best asked of our competitors. Some of the publicity has been hurtful, some it[sic] derogatory – yet none of the articles have[sic] provided a single shred of evidence of any wrong doing on our side. However, the perception created by the coverage has created a reality in the minds of some for which we have to work very hard to correct. More worrying, has been the impact of the coverage on my family – and particularly my kids. They are facing a barrage of questions and comments at school about the innuendo published about the family. This has been immoral and unethical on the part of these elements of the media, but I suppose we are going to have to get used to it as our family is here to stay – that is why we have taken on South African citizenship and we will continue to practice ethical and moral business, even if it offends some who wish us to pack up and leave this beautiful country.
DM: What do you feel about the way the Gupta family is portrayed by the South African media, how has it affected the family?
AG: We firmly support the notion of the Right to Information. However, where small insignificant truisms are blended with incorrect innuendoes and wild conjecture, than it is indeed unfortunate. We remain a closely knit family that is quite conservative. This unnecessary public attention has been unfortunate.
DM: How did you first meet Jacob Zuma and what is the nature of your relationship with him?
AG: President Jacob Zuma has been a family friend for the past nine-10 years and this relationship has endured throughout his trials and tribulations and hopefully, the friendship will continue even after his retirement from political positions. Ours is a true and great family friendship.
DM: What are your feelings on the manner in which the South African media has portrayed your relationship with Jacob Zuma?
AG: We have categorically stated that ours is a friendship. We are deeply offended when unwarranted insinuations are made whereby the president’s name is drawn into everything we do. Sadly, some references are just disrespectful of the president!
DM: What is your response to critics who say you have enriched the Zuma family?
AG: It is sad that opinions may be formed despite the lack of any information and/or proof.
DM: What is your response to critics regarding the Gupta’s business relationships with Zuma relatives including Duduzane Zuma, Gloria Bongi Ngema, and formerly with Duduzile Zuma?
AG: We have a close family relationship. We do not have any kind of business relationship with either Gloria and/or[sic] Duduzile. Our younger brother Tony has a joint interest with Duduzane in Mabengela Investments.
DM: What do you feel about the way the local media has responded to the launch and running of The New Age?
AG: Part of our vision to launch The New Age was to ensure accurate and balanced reporting. Our view is that our decision to launch was met by an aggressive attempt to denigrate us and our business efforts in launching this paper. There is also a mistaken notion that ours is an ANC-backed newspaper. We have openly defended that our newspaper shall remain crucially supportive of the government. In many ways we are flattered by the disproportionate amount of focus we are getting from our competitors. I would be more worried if they were ignoring us as that would mean we are inconsequential in their lives. By virtue of their sharp focus, it must mean that our alternative voice is proving to be a real threat to their own business ideals.
DM: What are your long-term interests in South Africa?
AG: Our greatest desire is to contribute in some small way to the overall well-being of South Africa. I would see our efforts focused on nation building, development of skills and enhancing entrepreneurial opportunities for all South Africans.
DM: What is your message to South Africans regarding the Gupta family in South Africa?
AG: We are humbled by the tremendous support of all our well-wishers during the media campaigns against our family. Our business dealings have always been driven by an ethical and moral approach. They gutter journalism of the past few months has certainly tried to create a perception about the family and its business deals. So many of our friends and family have stood by us during this tough time and we really appreciate their belief in us. We maintain our position of calling for our critics to provide one single bit of evidence of wrong-doing. Thus far our request has been met with a deafening silence. Truth always prevails.
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