South Africa

South Africa, Politics

From the archives: TRAINSPOTTER: Hell’s Wedding Bells — How the #GuptaLeaks reveal that South Africans paid for the whole damn thing

The Daily Maverick and amaBhungane can now confirm that the legendary Gupta family nuptials — a four-day wedding binge-fest in Sun City that took place between 29 April and 3 May, 2013 — was largely paid for with money stolen from a Free State dairy project, and laundered through a Gupta shell in Dubai. In all, over R30 million was pissed away in the wedding of Gupta niece Vega, and new nephew-in-law, Aakash. The happy couple were aided and abetted in their endeavours in no small part by the current Mineral Resources Minister, Mosebenzi Zwane, who will be remembered as the most generous wedding underwriter in South African history. And so, we arrive at the understanding that South Africa is an ungainly mash-up between two seventies classics, The Godfather and Invasion of the Body Snatchers — a gangster state in which the inhabitants are zombified agents of a corrupt, festering uber-mind, based not in outer space, but in the United Arab Emirates. By RICHARD POPLAK, based on reporting from amaBhungane and Scorpio

1. Amuse Bouche

April 29, 2013. It’s difficult to recall, given how the insta-news cycle fiddles with the gentle arc of time, but when a chartered Jet Airways A330-200 touched down at AFB Waterkloof, desecrating a “national key point” with festive saris and Louis Vuitton luggage sets, something in this country was irrevocably broken. The brazenness of this act of entitlement — transforming a military airbase into a red carpet for the friends and relatives of the president’s benefactors — was the ultimate act of chintzy parvenu one-upmanship. And yet, the implications were massive. Nothing was sacred in the land of the profaned — not even the National Party-era security designations that successive ANC governments hadn’t bothered to update.

Like Nkandla, like the rape trial, like the Guptas themselves, the Waterkloof landing helped sketch the contours of Jacob Zuma’s presidency. It was another of those humiliations that define the humiliation of being subjects in a failed experiment: no matter how we end up describing the various dispensations that have ill-served this poisoned land, we end up with some version of apartheid.

And so, it’s almost too perfect that South African taxpayers picked up the tab for the Gupta nuptials. Every line item, no matter how seemingly arbitrary, was paid for by you. The Guptas, their lieutenants, and their hirelings spared no expense, but also made sure that they (we?) received discounts on bulk purchases for items such as champagne and vodka — your money was wasted, but so were the guests! — and they also delayed payment as much as possible. As ever, the Guptas cannot be accused of either laze or loss of focus — every single detail was poured over and meticulously considered. PowerPoint presentation after PowerPoint presentation offered mock-ups of an event that resembled a cross between Frozen and the headtrip that results from dropping 60mg of ketamine while riding through Jaipur on a tiger.

A quick perusal of the invoices implies how much the guests must have enjoyed themselves. Picking line items entirely at random, it cost R1,995 to schlep VIPs around Sun City’s Kwena Gardens croc sanctuary; R11,250 for hiring out the Observatory pool deck for a luncheon; R116,600 for the grub itself; and R11,250 for renting out the Valley of the Waves so the kiddies could have a blast. Oh, and R2,480 for Tobeko Madiba-Zuma’s incidentals — clearly there wasn’t enough complimentary food, booze or hand cream in Sun City to keep the First-ish Lady in the manner to which she has become accustomed.

All told, over R30 million was spent on the ceremony, according to an email from the Gupta auditors, KPMG. And to reiterate, very little, if any, of this was picked up by the Guptas, largely because the Guptas don’t have any money that wasn’t illicitly defrauded from the National Treasury in one way or another.

No, South Africa—you paid for the whole fucking thing.

2. Starters

Thanks to the labours of amaBhungane’s and Scorpio’s forensics minds, we have now ascertained the following: the money for the wedding came from the Free State’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The responsibility of stealing hundreds of millions of rands fell to a company called Estina (Pty) Ltd, which was granted a 99-year lease on a vast plot of land adjacent a town called Vrede in order to initiate a dairy project. The dorp’s most renowned son happens to be Mosebenzi Zwane, who currently serves as Minister for the Department of Mineral Resources, but at the time held the Free State’s Agriculture portfolio.

In a normal country, the R114 million a year the province promised to throw at Estina would have amounted to standard-issue pork barrel politics — an overpriced project benefitting the locals in order to buy their loyalty come election time. But sadly, the locals don’t benefit in this story. Estina was linked to the Guptas via its “director”, Kamal Vasram, who was so unqualified that he would likely have trouble distinguishing a milk cow from a phablet. During a torrid month-and-a-half in 2013, and under Vasram’s trigger-happy control, Estina transferred exactly 8,348,700 USD (or R84 million at the time) to a Gupta shell in Dubai.

It will turn out to be enormously significant that these transactions were made in American dollars: while South Africa’s priority crime fighters, the Hawks, busy themselves trying to reach the boss level of Candy Crush, the American authorities take a dim view of this sort of thing, so much so that they’ve given it a name: money laundering. They understand that Third World backwaters tend not to prosecute financial crimes of this nature, and thus end up doing it themselves, through their Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).

But let’s return to the conspiracy at hand. At least 75 percent of the cash dumped into the brothers’ Standard Chartered account in Dubai was then spat back, via a variety of Gupta fronts in Dubai, to two Gupta companies in South Africa. AmaBhungane and Scorpio apparently had immense fun tracing an amount of R30 million, which was pinged around and among Dubai Gupta shells called Accurate Investments Limited, Gateway Limited and Global Corporation LCC before hitting a local Gupta company called Linkway Trading. In a series of tranches over the course of 2013, Linkway was paid an amount of exactly R30 million in US dollars, after having sent to Accurate an invoice for a “V&A Function”, obviously a reference to Vega and Aakash, the glittering young Indian couple who were married due to the largesse of a country in which 40 percent of the working age population can’t find employment. The Gupta crew didn’t bother to use code words; they barely attempted a cover up. They didn’t care, because they knew they didn’t have to.

Now I know what you’re thinking: how in fuck’s name did this financial roundelay escape regulatory notice in South Africa, where the average punter can’t use a dollar bill to wipe his ass without SARS sending in a SWAT team?

Enter KPMG, globally renowned consultancy and auditing firm, whose job it is to help rich people hide money.

3. Main Course

The leaked emails reveal that KPMG Africa, who were auditing the Gupta’s various financial activities, didn’t seem to regard Accurate as a “related party” — a pseudo-technical accounting term that refers to different companies owned by the same entity or people. By ignoring the fact that Accurate was a Gupta beneficiary, KPMG could also ignore the fact that Gupta-owned shells were dinging money across the globe.

So by all means, spread your legs and prepare for a final kick in the groin: by nodding sagely when the Gupta clan deemed the Linkway-issued wedding invoice as an “expense”, KPMG Africa helped the company write off the entire Sun City wedding against income earned.

Net result? In an act of fiduciary magic that in this particular context works like a line of poetry, no tax at all was paid on the money stolen from the Free State.

Sure, a junior KPMG auditor bleated some objections regarding this ludicrously obvious rip off. But some people just don’t understand their place in the universe. As the emails prove, KPMG’s then-Chief Executive, Moses Kgosana, along with audit partner Jacques Wessels, were more than happy to attend the wedding they helped you pay for. Drunk on glamour, neither Kgosana nor Wessels were in the mood for dissension from those lower in the ranks. So they spiked the objections, and signed off on the scam.

How badly did KPMG, ahem, cow to the Guptas? I’m not sure if it is technically possible to fellate someone over Microsoft Outlook, but Kgosana sure did try. Following the wedding, he found it necessary to send Atul Gupta a note, saying, “My wife and I were privileged to attend and enjoyed every moment and every occasion. I have never been to an event like that and probably will not because it was an event of the millennium.”

Aren’t big brand global “independent” financial enablers auditors just the best?

But to be fair to both the Guptas and KPMG, the wedding was indeed a business expense: the ceremony was an excuse to put an exclamation point on a solidified nexus of wealth and power. It was reminder to the wealthy and powerful that the Guptas were the primary keepers of the gate, and that whatever they did, and whatever angle they happened to be working, it came with the president’s tacit blessing. The wedding was a political event designed to make a political statement: we own this country. And the wealthy and the powerful listened, and took the Guptas at their word: they own this country. After the tables were cleared of the last of the food and drink, the theft and double-dealing ramped up in both volume and intensity, until we all looped back in time, and arrived back at the wedding that has come to define Jacob Zuma’s South Africa.

4. Dessert

Anyway, in return for this tale of fiduciary woe, I ask that you permit me the indulgence of a little coda. I recently reported a story for an international publication, and the assignment required that I travelled to a Free State township called Rammulotsi. As ever, I found a dirt-and crime-riddled shithole that stood alongside the pristine, largely white town of Viljoenskroen — the two municipalities functioned as a perfectly rendered diorama of the apartheid era. Part of the brief was to cover a UK-based charity called Dramatic Need, which was based in Rammulotsi, and had since 2007 helped the local kids express themselves through artistic practice. At first, I rolled my eyes, made farting noises, and presented all the usual objections: who are these British knobs to come here to meddle with South Africa’s kids?

Then I listened to the monologues the children had crafted, which related grim little faits divers, stories of growing up black and poor in a place where there is no work, almost no governance, and only drink and drugs to make sense of the passing of time. So brutal were these tales — one kid told a story involving a combination of child abuse and gang rape that was, even for a veteran reporter, frankly life changing — that the cynicism sort of just poof!, melted away, leaving in its stead a cloud of despair that has yet to dissipate, and has only deepened as I read through the emails and the resulting work of the forensics team.

As we now know, the quarterback for the wedding caper was no one less than Mosebenzi Zwane, Free State born and bred, and a great promoter of radical economic transformation in its various permutations. It seems unlikely that any of the provisions he has so far recommended — a judicial inquiry into the behaviour of the banking sector; doubling down on elite-making BEE initiatives in the mining sector; helping the Guptas steal coal mines from Swiss-based sociopaths — will have any impact on the lives of those imprisoned in Rammulotsi. But the tens of millions he helped channel from provincial coffers into a wedding ceremony might have made a difference. I’m not for a second suggesting that the fate of our poorest communities is a result only of government corruption — in a country this well endowed, the fact that we are still forced to outsource the care of our kids to British bleeding-heart liberals is a shame we must bear collectively. But I am suggesting that it takes a special kind of asshole to willfully ignore the misery that exists in his or her own constituency, and help pump taxpayers’ cash into foreign bank accounts in order to fund a circus, when bread is so desperately required.

But this country is, and always has been, full of special types of assholes.

Zwane has likely been well rewarded for his work as the Gupta’s most loyal servant, but we shouldn’t be tricked into confusing economic empowerment for dignity. As amaBhungane noted, on the various wedding lists, his name was repeatedly misspelled as “Mosebebi”. This is apt. To the Gupta syndicate, he was, and remains, a nobody — just another purchasable, fungible commodity in a land full of them.

Here, everything and everyone is for sale. And as it turns out, South Africans themselves put up the cash for others to do the buying.

5. Parting Gift

So long as Jacob Zuma remains in power, the National Prosecuting Authority and the Hawks will do nothing to circumscribe the activities of the Guptas and their enablers. But as I’ve noted, the information contained in the amaBhungane forensics report suggests that the family have run afoul of the Americans, who tend not to busy themselves playing Candy Crush.

Every wedding invites a hangover. The Guptas’ has not yet kicked in, but it’s about to. And it’s going to be a killer. DM

Photo: Twitter collage from the wedding.