The whereabouts of the man at the heart of the Guptas’ dealings with the Department of Home Affairs are hard to prove right now, but one place he was not this week was in Parliament.
Ashu Chawla, the Oakbay director who seemingly used Home Affairs as the Guptas’ personal visa factory, is notable by his absence in Parliament this week – despite being described as the “most key witness” in the Gupta nationalisation inquiry.
Parliament’s Home Affairs committee chair Hlomani Chauke informed the inquiry that Chawla’s lawyer had made contact on Wednesday night to explain that his client is in India until the end of November.
Chauke said that it would be necessary to “verify whether he has left the country”, as there were reports of Chawla’s South African phone and WhatsApp number still being online this week.
At the end of the day’s hearings, Chauke confirmed to the committee that he had established that Chawla was indeed in India.
The question this poses is whether South African authorities gave Chawla permission to leave the country – and if so, on what grounds. Chawla is one of the eight accused in the Estina Dairy Farm case, and in February was granted bail with the condition that he surrender his passport. Another bail condition was that Chawla not leave the province in which he resides.
At the time, NPA spokesperson Luvuyo Mfaku confidently declared, with regards to Chawla and his co-accused:
“They will remain here, that is for sure.”
Contacted by Daily Maverick on Thursday with a request for comment on how Chawla has managed to leave the country, Mfaku did not respond.
Wherever Chawla is, his ears must have been burning on Thursday as the inquiry repeatedly cited him as the point man between the Guptas and Home Affairs.
It was Chawla who composed a letter to Home Affairs in 2015 – after an application for the naturalisation of three Gupta family members had been rejected – glowingly describing the contribution the Guptas had made to South Africa.
In the letter, Chawla recorded the Guptas’ social contributions, which included providing fast food to select schoolchildren in North West.
“Many of the kids have told us that these meals are the first time they ever had something like KFC!” wrote Chawla.
The letter foregrounded the Guptas’ economic investment in South Africa, which he valued at R25-billion at that time. The Guptas employed 7,000 workers, Chawla wrote, but over time hoped to grow their staff to 100,000.
The appeal succeeded.
Astonishingly, however, Home Affairs official Richard Sikakane told the committee that the claims made by Chawla in his letter were never verified.
“I must indicate that the issue of verifying the R25-billion and 7,000 employees was not something that we did,” a slightly shame-faced Sikakane told the inquiry.
The official claimed that the failure to verify the Guptas’ circumstances was not the result of special treatment granted to the family, but standard operating procedure for Home Affairs.
“We have never in the past [gone] out to do the verification of what applicants wrote to us,” Sikakane offered by way of explanation.
“If they misrepresent themselves, that’s… something else.”
That Chawla did indeed misrepresent the Guptas is now beyond question, with the inquiry hearing on Wednesday that the alleged school feeding schemes, for one, were largely a fabrication.
But the erstwhile director general of Home Affairs, Mkuseli Apleni, would later on Thursday take exception to Sikakane’s claim, insisting that the department relied on institutions such as SARS to verify such details.
Sikakane’s testimony on the matter was one among a number of head-spinning moments during Thursday’s hearings, causing committee chair Chauke to rant.
“When I remember how people fought and died for this country… Home Affairs just opens up the borders and sells [citizenship] for free, for a plate of curry or a ticket to Sun City,” Chauke said.
Following Sikakane in the metaphorical dock was fellow Home Affairs official Major Kobese.
When confronted with the evidence from the #GuptaLeaks emails that Kobese had written to Chawla in 2015 to give him sensitive department information – informing him of the deployment of Gideon Christians to Delhi – Kobese was at a loss to explain his actions.
“I don’t know why I did that,” Kobese said. “I must have sent the email by error.”
Christians himself would go on to admit to the inquiry that he had subsequently emailed Chawla confidential details of South African mission officials around the world – an action the increasingly irate Chauke termed “tantamount to treason”.
After Christians’ testimony, Chauke said that action should be take against him “at the highest level”.
The man whose signature appears on the document recommending the Guptas for early naturalisation, Apleni, was supposed to face 17 questions pre-prepared by the inquiry but ended up fielding only a fraction of those.
This was due partly to the timing of Apleni’s flight out of Cape Town, and partly to the former DG’s longwinded approach to testifying – which saw him deflect repeatedly to a stack of documentation he had brought to the inquiry.
Apleni admitted no wrongdoing, and insisted he had no knowledge of the questionable relationships that Chawla may have enjoyed with officials like Christians until the publication of the #GuptaLeaks emails brought such allegations to his attention.
It was only after 19:30 that former Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba looked likely to get his moment in front of the inquiry.
In advance, Gigaba had tweeted: “Thirty minutes from an appearance before the portfolio committee on Home Affairs to debunk, with cold hard facts, the manufactured myth that I granted [South African] citizenship to the Gupta family, thereby facilitating ‘state capture’. The truth does, indeed, set you free”.
It was a bold assertion which failed to match the reality of what was to follow – which saw the hearing unexpectedly adjourned without Gigaba’s contribution.
Chauke explained the decision to adjourn as motivated by the inquiry still needing to deal with the “core” issues of “administration and processes” rather than the “tail end” of business which Gigaba would provide.
“Bring Apleni back, bring Chawla,” said Chauke, describing the inquiry’s next moves. It was not clear what means would be employed to summon Chawla from India.
In the final moments of Thursday’s proceedings, DA MP Hanif Hoosen summed up the inquiry’s less than linear trajectory.
“We’ve been here for more than a year,” Hoosen said. “We have more questions than answers.” DM
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