ANC back-bencher, Vytjie Mentor, was conveniently booked on the same First Class flight to China with Duduzane Zuma and Rajesh Gupta in what appears to be the genesis of their effort to take control of state-owned enterprises eight years ago.
If she had played ball, the Guptas offered to ensure that she would take over from then public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan whom they “knew” would be fired in an upcoming Cabinet reshuffle by Zuma.
Hogan did get the chop in the October 2010 reshuffle, weeks after the Guptas tried to offer her job to a seemingly inflexible Mentor – this made way for Malusi Gigaba who has often been described as the minister who enabled the Gupta foray into state-owned companies.
Mentor’s first meeting with the Guptas happened when an official trip to China was brought forward so it could coincide with President Zuma’s state visit to that country in August 2010. Transnet, the state-owned company that sponsored Mentor’s trip, couldn’t get her on a cheaper flight… wink, wink.
There, in mid-air, she would hear a tap on her cubicle as former president Zuma’s son came over to say hi, then to introduce her to the youngest of the three Gupta brothers. One of them would tell her that she was doing a “sterling job” in Parliament.
At that point, Mentor, the chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on public enterprises, had never met the young Zuma. It’s unclear if she knew much of the Guptas back then because the controversial Waterkloof wedding scandal that catapulted their name into the headlines would only come three years later.
Testifying at the judicial commission of inquiry into State Capture on Monday, the former ANC MP – admitting that parts of her memory of what transpired have become somewhat fuzzy – detailed the events leading up to the alleged Gupta offer to make her a Cabinet minister a few weeks after the China trip when she would be taken to the family’s Saxonwold home.
Her testimony came on the back of explosive revelations by former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas who also explained an alleged R600-million Gupta bribe offer and a ministerial post in exchange for, among other things, getting rid of several senior officials such as Lungisa Fuzile, Ismail Momoniat, Andrew Donaldson and Kenneth Brown at National Treasury.
Mentor’s Gupta courtship started with the trip to China. Upon arrival at the venue for a business seminar in Beijing, she found herself cold-shouldered by several big wig South African politicians, something that crushed her spirit.
But she spotted the “Indian” gentlemen Duduzane had introduced her to on the flight and he (Rajesh) would personally help her sort out accreditation to attend the event.
“In the meeting room where the Minister of Trade and Industry, Rob Davies, opened the proceedings, he handed over to the person that I later came to know was a Gupta brother. The Guptas were in charge, so to speak.
“They wore tags around their necks that officialised them, as far as I was concerned, in a more important way than many others and they were mingling freely with all the ministers and delegates,” Mentor testified.
Unimpressed about having been isolated, Mentor ditched a banquet that evening and stayed in for a bit of TV and room service instead.
Reception called. They had two gentlemen downstairs asking for her. Mentor asked that they be put on the phone because she couldn’t figure out who they were.
“The person on the phone identified himself as a Gupta. He informed me that he has been sent by the president (Zuma at the time) to come and fetch me and to drive me to meet President Zuma at the Chinese State guest house where he was staying.”
Mentor testified that the Gupta on the phone told her the president would like to meet her before he headed to the state banquet.
She said the caller may have said his first name, but that only the surname stuck in her mind.
“I told him I was concerned that someone I had not met before, a man, foreign so to speak (whom I didn’t know), to purport to me that he is supposed to drive me to the president. “
But the caller then tried to convince her that he was part of the state visit delegation and had been part of the “advance team”.
Rajesh Gupta had told her on the plane that his older brother, Ajay, was part of the “advance team”, so she assumed this was Ajay on the phone.
“In no uncertain terms I said I wouldn’t go. He was first boastful in trying to convince me of his role and importance, but as I said no, then he became a little bit aggressive in tone. At one point he said to me he was going to call the president and tell that I am refusing to come with.
“He called me back a few minutes later and said, ‘The president insists you must come with me.’”
Mentor dug in and says she told him to tell Zuma she wouldn’t come.
“By then I had made several attempts to see the president on South African soil, so it was strange and discomfiting that he was now wanting to see me abroad.
“I made it abundantly clear that I was not going and put the phone down, then I unplugged it.
“The sun was setting. As a woman, I was not going to President Zuma who had then had a reputation with woman. I then decided, for my safety, I am heading home.”
But the Guptas were not done with her, as events a few weeks later would show.
“On Sunday evening, I got a call from Lakela Kaunda (then Zuma’s aide) telling me the meeting I had been seeking with Zuma would be happening the next day.”
Although happy to finally get an audience with Zuma, she was worried that the meeting was the following morning as she was in Cape Town and had to travel to Johannesburg.
“She (Kaunda) called and said a gentleman would call me regarding the meeting. I got a name of Atul… and a number for Atul… I don’t recall if I asked for the number but I got Atul’s number from her as the person who would handle my trip,” Mentor told the commission.
Atul, she said, called her and the next morning she was on an 06:00 flight to Johannesburg, where there were two Indian gentlemen, one holding a placard with her name, waiting for her.
She recognised Rajesh Gupta as being one of the two and while she had expected to be taken to Zuma she instead found herself in the vicinity of the Gupta-owned Sahara. The other man, she said, she later realised was Atul Gupta.
Sitting in a private reception area, Mentor said, there was no sign of Zuma and when she eventually harassed someone to help her, she was taken into an office where Ajay Gupta was sitting.
They exchanged pleasantries but she remained confused about what she was doing there.
She would then figure out that Ajay Gupta knew of her scheduled meeting with Zuma, whom he said was running late, and that she had wanted to discuss with him conflicting government messages about the future of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor.
They parted ways, with Ajay telling her, “we’ll meet again”. She would then be driven off to her meeting with Zuma, or so she hoped.
Except, Mentor said, she landed up at the family’s Saxonwold home where indeed a short while later – once Atul had sorted out her lunch order – Ajay Gupta walked in and said, “so, we meet again”.
Here it unsettled her that he knew of the reason for her meeting with Zuma.
“He told me to ‘forget about saving’ the PBMR and that the project, along with SAA, was bleeding money.”
Ajay, Mentor said, referred to her being from the Northern Cape, a province rich in uranium, and allegedly then told her that they, the Guptas, were going to be the main supplier of uranium for the government’s then planned new nuclear build programme.
Mentor is scheduled to resume her testimony on Tuesday when she may elaborate on the rest of the meeting with Ajay and, possibly, how she had spotted former president Zuma in the house as she was leaving.
She admitted that parts of her memory were fuzzy and that she sometimes recalled some of the details only later on. She also admitted to an inaccuracy in her book, No Holy Cows, in which she referred to Brian Hlongwa, the former Gauteng Health MEC, as the second person Duduzane Zuma had introduced to her on that Emirates flight.
She said she now knew or believed that person to have been controversial businessman, Fana Hlongwana, another name that frequently pops up in the vicinity of the Gupta empire.
But, at the start of her testimony, she told the commission:
“There are various times I diverted from the script, when it was not fashionable for ANC MPs (backbenchers) to hold the executive accountable, I made it a point when I pursued my duties to abide by the Constitution.”
Mentor went into the first day of her testimony amid several pending applications before Commission chairperson, Justice Raymond Zondo, for her to be cross-examined by some of the parties implicated by her testimony.
She said she was standing before the State Capture inquiry, difficult as it may be, and that this was not the first time she had broken rank.
Mentor, who has an eye for beauty, spotted expensive branded luggage during her trip home from China, and wondered if the mirrors in the Gupta home were gold or gilded, and whether the steps leading up to the front door were marble or granite.
While it took her schoolteacher training and determination to find a way to eventually try to recognise one Gupta brother from another, the one thing she was emphatic about was that offer of a Cabinet post in exchange for favours. DM