In the political battle between the Gupta family and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, punches have started to come thick and fast, the use of elbows is becoming more prevalent, and we all know that no holds are barred. On Monday, Gordhan filed his formal legal papers in response to papers already lodged by the Guptas. They were responding to his original application for a declaratory order that he does not have the power to intervene in the relationship between the Guptas and their former banks. At the heart of this is the 72 suspicious transactions amounting to R6.8-billion that the Financial Intelligence Centre was worried about. While the court papers are supposed to be about the law and technical argument, they actually open a window on what is really happening here; politics, by other means. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
“The truth that stands revealed as the real plot is the systematic and highly organised campaign by the Gupta family and its associates against the National Treasury, myself and other targets.”
There it is. In black and white. In a sworn legal document, from the Finance Minister.
Immediately the Hawks sprung into action, leading a raid on the headquarters of the Gupta firms, and hitting Saxonwold hard. President Jacob Zuma’s office released a statement offering his full support to Gordhan, and saying that the family would face the “full might of the law”. NPA head Advocate Shaun Abrahams, and the institution’s commercial crimes head Advocate Lawrence Mrwebi, held a live press conference, explaining how they will fast-track this investigation, and promising to get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible.
Okay, let’s rewind that… We’re just joking, of course. None of the above happened. This is the reality of South Africa in 2017.
But the next time someone tells you off for being too cynical, the next time someone says that maybe the Guptas and President Jacob Zuma are not such bad people, that Mzwanele Manyi and Kebby Maphatsoe and the ANC Youth League have been drinking too much Oros, remember this moment. We’re talking about the claim in a legal document from the Finance Minister. And no criminal action will be taken. It reveals everything we know, and fear, about Zuma’s grip on the police, the criminal justice system, and the security institutions.
It is about as scary as it could be.
When Gordhan first filed his application in this case, the focus became immediately on the report attached to his first affidavit, the document that exposed how companies owned and controlled by the Guptas had been involved in these transactions that were flagged as suspicious. It’s complicated, and involves that intersection between the law and banking. If you’re thinking here about the Financial Intelligence Centre Amendment Bill, and last week’s hearings in Parliament, you’re on the right page. But the heart of Gordhan’s application deals with these requests that he received from then Oakbay CEO Nazeem Howa that asked him to force the banks to re-open their accounts. Gordhan refused, after seeking legal advice from Advocate Jeremy Gauntlett (SC, Judge of the Appeal Court in Lesotho, Queen’s Counsel, but still not, for some reason, a judge). Gordhan wants a judge to rule that he cannot intervene.
In his response, the Finance Minister has taken the time to deal with the claims made by the Guptas. They said, in their own legal papers, that he had told a group of business leaders that it was time to “clip the wings” of the family. They said the source of this claim could not be revealed, because there would be repercussions. Gordhan suggests that perhaps the “repercussion” they fear is simply called a cross-examination. He also points out, correctly, that there are no details about this source; how many people made this claim, how did the Guptas hear about it, was the evidence given to them in writing or in oral form? In the end, he says, it is of course denied, and inadmissible hearsay. And a “conspiracy theory” and a “latter-day fabrication”.
He also makes hay with some of the arguments that the family have put forward. They say that while the FIC may have flagged these transactions as “suspicious”, the Hawks have not actually investigated them, and thus clearly there was nothing wrong with them in the end. But Gordhan points out that the transactions involved (as the public protector’s State of Capture report shows) are “multiple and intricate” and “thus no inference can be drawn from the fact that the FIC has not yet completed its report”. He goes on to throw some elbow, “The Hawks, on the other hand, evidently (as I and others have experienced) have other priorities.”
Oh, General Mthandazo Ntlemeza, he sees you a mile away.
Gordhan also points to an error in logic that is inherent in the Guptas’ argument. He says they are now claiming that he is responsible for some sort of “conspiracy” against them. But, he asks, how could they say that now, when on their own version, they, through Howa, approached him for help with the banks? Why would they ask him for help if they knew he was responsible for this “vendetta”? He points out that the Guptas refer to a “long and unfortunate political history” between them and himself. But, he says, this “history” was not referred to in any of the letters that they sent him when they asked for help.
Gordhan also goes through the evidence given by his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, in the State of Capture report, explaining how he was offered money and promotion to Nhlanhla Nene’s job, while at the Saxonwold home of the Guptas. He also makes this point about his position:
“It is the duty of the Minister of Finance to uphold the integrity of the financial sector and to safeguard National Treasury from inappropriate interference by influential individuals. There is nothing “improper” or “political” in an incoming Finance Minister distancing himself from an influential family alleged to have been involved in the appointment of his immediate predecessor.”
The “immediate predecessor” here is of course Des van Rooyen. Towards whom even Gwede Mantashe has shown contempt in public.
It is important of course to remember the other aspects of the Gupta businesses, and, in a wonderful display of cutting legal prose, Gordhan goes on to make the comment that the Guptas have “indeed used this forum to make allegations against me which not even The New Age could credibly disseminate”.
Ouch, Moegsien Williams. That must have hurt.
To put all the legal Latin to one side for a moment, there is probably an important reason as to why Gordhan has put his understanding of the situation, that the Guptas are leading a “highly organised campaign… against the National Treasury…” quite so clearly. In a world of “alternative facts” it is becoming harder and harder to know what is going on. One of the strategies used by the Guptas is to muddy the waters, using fake Twitter accounts, and discussions about “White Monopoly Capital”. It must surely serve Gordhan to remind people that this is about a fight for control of the Treasury.
It’s a moment of clarity: he almost provides supporters with a flag to rally around, a rock on which to anchor their belief in a world of testing tweets. And it may well work, as it will be difficult for the Guptas to convince a judge to force him to change his view.
It is by no means certain that this case will ever be heard in court. And if it is, it’s probably unlikely in the extreme that any member of the Gupta family will end up in the witness box, giving testimony under oath. But the case is important, it’s revealing what exactly is going on. And it shows how weak the position of the Guptas actually is. And how “the real plot is the systematic and highly organised campaign by the Gupta family and its associates against the National Treasury, myself (Gordhan) and other targets”. DM
Photo: Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)
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