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Gupta Inc Profiles: Salim Essa, State Capture’s man of the moment

Salime Essa in 2000, these days in Dubai and in 2014, when we worked with The Guptas (all photos supplied)

He’s broke. Never. He wants a deal. No, he doesn’t. He says they have nada on him but he’s pissed off with the Gs. These snippets form part of the grapevine yarns flowing from Dubai where Gupta kingpin Salim Essa has been holed up since 2017. Whether genuine tidbits shared with trusted associates or PR driven by delusion or desperation, Essa is in one fine bind as he navigates life in self-imposed exile, now with the added trouble of the US government blacklisting.

In the State Capture cast, there are minions and expensive pawns and then, there is Salim Essa – the man who had a seat at the Gupta table, once their most trusted lieutenant.

There is no trace of a single criminal charge against him but the 41-year-old Limpopo native has become the latest South African to be blacklisted by the United States Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) when he was sanctioned along with his former paymasters, Gupta brothers, Ajay, Atul and Rajesh (Tony) last month.

Accused of having made billions of rand in dirty deals and kickbacks, they are State Capture’s prime suspects.

But, Essa, whose hand in the engineering of tainted deals with state-owned companies has been substantially documented, continues to enjoy obscurity, his Wiki page a mere 183 words long. He is an enigma to everyone but his besties, current and former.

There are few publicly available photographs of him and the one used time and again by news media shows a chubby-faced guy with just a hint of a smile – he could easily be mistaken for a nice car salesman.

This is not a guy sucked into Gupta Inc only by decadence, that notorious calling card they once used to wave a magic wand around bent politicians, civil servants and private sector partners.

Essa had a silver spoon upbringing that brought with it a love for expensive cars and only the finest habanos.

But his maiden first-class trip overseas didn’t come courtesy of the Guptas and neither did the rail of Armani suits.

While the Gupta brothers once described how they had travelled to an Indian village school on a rickshaw, Essa is a product of St John’s College, one of Johannesburg’s finest private schools; his first big boy set of wheels, a BMW Z3. He was barely 18 when he got the car.

He graduated with a Bcom degree, majoring in economics and risk management at Wits and, before long he was rubbing shoulders with the yuppie set in Miami, where he later served as VP of a company that shows no online presence today.

The Ferrari and 911 Porsche Carrera followed, later a black Bentley, and more recently he’s been spotted cruising the money suburbs of Dubai in a Rolls Royce that may or may not be part of a Gupta Inc fleet.

If talk about Essa’s increasing isolation by the Guptas in Dubai is to believed, the Rolls may just have been a hired ride used to roll up at his favourite hangouts; Nusr-Et at the Four Seasons or Flamingo Room by South Africa’s very own Tashas along Al Naseem’s famed turtle lagoon.

Essa has not responded to Daily Maverick’s requests for an interview so it’s impossible to discern, accurately, how Dubai is treating him these days.

But, the bush telegraph has gone into overdrive since he landed on the damning US sanctions list, and “forced retirement” is said to be causing him some strain.

He’s still in Dubai. I saw him about two, three months ago.”

He’s got a little beard going, not a full-on one, but he’s got one.

Daily Maverick has had sight of a rare fresh image of Essa, now looking 4kg lighter and sporting a trendy salt and pepper hairstyle with matching beard:

Loose talk that he wants to cut a deal with South African authorities is just that.

Asked a close friend: “What must he make a deal for? They haven’t charged him with anything, have they?”

Everyone in town is trying to negotiate a deal for him but Salim can’t face one night in jail. He will not do it,” said another.

Any deal with Essa, once considered a fourth “Gupta brother,” is likely to warrant full disclosure and the prospect of that coming with a soft landing could prove unpalatable for a country desperate to claw its way out of years of crippling corruption.

From the 1,064 locomotives deal to the Estina dairy scandal, Essa was simply in too deep, his fingerprints all over State Capture-linked deals, anti-corruption experts reckon.

Some have warned though, that Essa could of course just be sending such signals to stall any concrete moves by the South African government to drive him into the arms of the National Prosecuting Authority for a deal.

But, indications are that the mood in Dubai has become tense, with some newbies, unburdened by the State Capture scandal, now hovering above Essa.

He is said to be shacked up in a rental in the city’s District 1, his lifestyle somewhat inconvenienced as he is no doubt having to rely on nominees to operate his companies and bank accounts over there.

The Etisalat cellphone franchise – likely one of those operated through the Gupta-linked company, The Marketing Quotient – where some relatives have been seen busying themselves at, has now closed down and those family members are back in SA more regularly these days.

And, the passport renewals, well, they’re bound to warrant a trip to the SA consulate at some point.

Leaked material shows that Essa holds two South African passports, the one flagged by the US authorities is set to expire in 2022 while the second, used about 90 times during his Gupta spell and as recently as 2017, is valid until 2024.

 

Well, at least the makeover looks good.

Hooking up Gupta Inc

The man who would go on to reign as “lord of the manor” at Saxonwold for just under a decade, Essa had crept into the once fledgeling Gupta empire, surreptitiously, and soon displaced some of their former associates.

He didn’t displace them, he deposed them.”

Ask Essop Pahad, ask Iqbal Sharma. He came to overtake them as an ally and became a useful rag in the execution of his own greed-driven agenda.”

Pahad, Minister in the Presidency during the Thabo Mbeki administration, was one of the Gupta brothers’ very early government friends and severed business ties with the family back in 2011. It’s now common cause that former Transnet bigwig Sharma had introduced Essa to the Guptas.

Essa grew up in Polokwane but family circumstances brought him to Johannesburg, first Azaadville, on Joburg’s West Rand and later, Houghton, one of the country’s old-money suburbs, its most famous former resident the late Nelson Mandela.

Once part of a band of “really good looking kids” that enjoyed Joburg’s nightlife, Essa was known to bail out his mates with a lift home in the middle of the night when they were unable to find their car keys.

They all came from money, drove nice cars but Salim was somewhat of a misfit.”

He was like the water boy who would fetch their drinks or run errands for them back then.”

Salim Essa at friend’s wedding, back in 2000. (supplied)

Not quite, says a former connection.

Yes, he was from out of town but he came with the right pedigree. That made him acceptable to the Houghton crowd.”

Those who know him from those days and later watched him rise in stature and wealth say Essa always behaved like he had something to prove and did so with a potent blend of arrogance, ignorance and greed, once the Guptas had reeled him in.

Fresh out of varsity, Essa headed for the United States in 2007 where he spent two years, at one point working as “Vice President” of an entity his CV lists as Torq International LLC in Miami.

He returned as a 29-year-old to start his own company, Moya Multimedia, where, according to a lean CV, he developed a strategy to enable broadband access for all.

The CV is silent on the 20-month period between January 2010 to October 2011 when he became a non-executive director of Broadband Infraco, a state-owned entity under the Department of Public Enterprises, at which he, ironically, also chaired the tender and procurement committee as well as the social and ethics committee.

But, based on more than a dozen off-the-record interviews conducted by Daily Maverick, Essa slipped into Guptaville sometime around 2009, when a coterie of highly regarded businessmen – smelling the roses around them – decided to get out.

He made his Gupta debut at the wedding of his old, now ex-friend, Sharma, on the Cape south coast.

He suddenly emerged at the wedding as a person of stature around the Gs.”

Until then, he really was irrelevant, a nobody,” said one of those wedding guests.

By 2014/2015, Essa was regularly travelling first class to Dubai and India, often a VIP booking with one of the Guptas, as in April 2014 when reservations staff at the Oberoi hotel were instructed to secure him a luxury suite “and please make sure the butler is there all the time”.

The boy from the middle-class suburb of Nirvana, Polokwane, now empowered with the Gupta magic, was living exactly the life he had always spoken of – the buddies from Houghton watching his rise from a distance, not one bit surprised.

He always said he was gonna be a dollar millionaire and the Guptas became his golden ticket. He knew they were unstoppable.”

Essa came to play a central role in what has authoritatively been described as the brazen heist of South Africa’s state-owned companies. He has been a key feature at a public inquiry that has already cost the country close to R400-million just to get to the bottom of the rot at Eskom, Denel and Transnet.

I’m not passing judgment, because I wasn’t there, but I believe Salim made the Guptas.

Iqbal was deadwood living in Bollywood Lalaland. Salim went on to show them how to close the deal.”

All this talk about him barking orders at politicians, that didn’t just happen.

He would have wined and dined them first, given a guy a Rolex or a Bentley to use for his wedding and, only once he had insurance, would he have pulled rank,” said one loyal friend.

He is generous but in business, he is f****n’ ghetto smart, a sewer rat in an Armani suit.”

He will have had a game plan, even for the Guptas. If they say he bowed to them, it would only have been because it had suited him because Salim doesn’t have to bow to anybody.”

There is much speculation about whether Essa made millions or billions out of his Gupta tenure – while many of the family’s key lieutenants pushed paper or emails or served as proxies, Essa is said to have been instrumental in setting up the shadowy company structure that once spanned South Africa, Hong Kong, China and India and Dubai.

I don’t believe the stories of billions. But I think he made a lot of money.”

While elevating him in the wealthy Indian community as someone who had made it, the Gupta ties had cost him many a friendship, especially when details of his role were unpacked at the Zondo Commission.

There was a time when worshippers at the Houghton mosque would virtually want to kiss his hand on Friday afternoons. By the end of it, he was an embarrassing, unwelcome sight for some of us.”

Loyal to the bitter end, Essa tried to rescue the empire when Gupta family companies were stripped of banking facilities in 2017 by launching an audacious but failed bid to buy the Habib Overseas Bank.

While he is said to have hurt those closest to him as a result of his Gupta tenure, as time passes the lack of visible action by South African authorities seems to be swaying opinions around him.

He was misguided. He really believes they have nothing on him.”

He got in way over his head and then, when the writing was on the wall, there was simply no turning back,” said one sympathetic associate.

A former friend, less convinced by the Essa hubris, believes he has been tripped by greed and his need for recognition and that he is sitting in Dubai, “vulnerable, lonely and scared”.

He’s getting exactly what he deserves.”

When he bragged about having made R100-million, people told him to get out. But, he just saw the dollar signs and the power.”

Said a very recent ex-friend: “I have no relationship with him.”

He’s said to be cracking, depressed even. Daily Maverick enquires: “Well, anyone would crack under this [pressure]. But, you lie with the fleas and that’s what you get.”

Essa is known to be merely a person of interest to South African law enforcement and there is no indication that he is on a list of wanted persons, something likely to disrupt his jet-set lifestyle beyond the borders of the UAE.

Officially, there is no trace of a charge sheet and dockets bearing his name remain, well, pending.

But some anti-corruption experts reckon he should be under scrutiny by the taxman and that he may have to account to allegations of money laundering, racketeering and corruption at the very least.

Packing for the Dubai hills

Rumour has it that around September 2017 a black Bentley rolled up along the streets of Polokwane. Essa had gone back to his home-town to greet his elderly father.

On September 22 2017, Essa boarded Emirates flight EK 766 and took off for Dubai where the Guptas had already shifted their compound to a R448-million mansion in the Emirates Hills.

Some six months later, on 8 March 2018, the late Aziz Omar Essa was buried by Muslim rites at a graveyard in Polokwane. A humble and highly regarded businessman, he was laid to rest surrounded by friends and family.

Unable or unwilling to travel to SA, Essa, the youngest of three sons, was a no-show.

I think he was scared to come. But his dad did go over there to see him once just before he passed on.”

A common refrain from those asked about Essa’s roots: “He comes from a decent family.”

There was an abundance of money on both sides of his family, Essa didn’t need the Guptas to make money, they say.

But this is a guy who thought of life in dollar wealth, someone who fancied himself in a limo, on a yacht or hopping on private jets between London and France.”

Except for his wife, Zeenat, who was a director of one of the implicated companies, Zestilor, not a single member of Essa’s immediate family features anywhere in the State Capture stink.

Of course, Essa is not his family, he is the snazzy dresser who has long since traded in the once-prized Brioni suits for a look that now resembles Versace chic.

In his heyday between 2012 and 2015, there would be deals on the green at the Houghton Golf course or smoky lounges around Melrose Arch.

But he f****d up people’s lives, man,” said someone with ties to some of the businessmen and government executives that Essa once had on speed dial.

Some of the okes can’t even pay for a lawyer now.”

The who’s who on the unofficial State Capture list of suspects have all had their Essa deal encounters: Regiments Capital’s Niven Pillay and Eric Wood, former parastatal bosses like Anoj Singh and of course, Sharma.

Essa had dazzled them back then, though he would be heard barking orders too, at government execs and once, to a whole McKinsey & Co partner, Vikas Sagar, who had popped in for a meet at Trillian Capital Partners (TCP).

Trillian was Essa’s last but doomed venture, its launch coinciding with the collapse of the Guptas’ alleged criminal enterprise in SA.

It’s under control,” he would be heard saying as the banks finally terminated Gupta-linked accounts in 2016.

He was all over the news, yet when you found him at sitting at a restaurant, he would laugh it off,” said a high-profile businessman who once had fleeting relations with the Guptas.

Of course, all that changed when the #Guptaleaks, that treasure trove of emails that came to be the undoing of the Guptas, emerged in mid-2017.

Likely to challenge US blacklisting

Those who know him reckon Essa won’t take his US blacklisting lying down.

He’s going to fight it. His life depends on it.”

The Americans are probably going to try and extradite him. He’s got to fight it,” said an associate who demonstrated little knowledge of what it would take for the US government to go after the Guptas or Essa.

Driven into exile, he has been shunned by those once closest to him, some even denying there ever was a friendship.

Shut out of the banking system internationally, his proverbial stockpile of cash, now mainly in Emirati dirham, can only last so long and a Panamanian villa must look increasingly appealing.

Two associates that Daily Maverick spoke to believe Essa will have to account for all he is alleged to have done, either in service of the Guptas or out of sheer greed.

But, they reckon, he may well have an ace up his sleeve – and enough cash to survive the desert isolation a bit longer.

He may not be all that liquid now but he will have ring-fenced his cut.”

He’s not a stupid laaitie. You must remember the Guptas had an extended family that fed off the system. Salim was a lone man so his cut was his…”

Everyone agrees that Essa – until recently still spotted in a Gupta-linked office on the 11th floor of the iconic Boulevard Tower Plaza 1 in downtown Dubai – also holds the key to other yet-to-be exposed elements and characters of State Capture

The prospect of him striking a deal and becoming a State witness? “I promise you, he will not rat on anyone, it’s just not his way,” said one of his mates.

While local law enforcement, in the bid to recover some of the State Capture loot may well be hunting down Gupta Inc assets around the world, Essa has had enough time to trim down his local property portfolio.

The #Guptaleaks point to an upmarket apartment in Johannesburg. In 2014 Essa settled an Absa bond for R4-million, the payment, effected by Gupta Inc devotee Ronica Ragavan.

Further information suggests the reference used for the payment is for an apartment at the swish Houghton on the 12th, a development overlooking one of the country’s premier golf courses. The estate’s promo material reads: “Luxury living for those who have earned the right to demand more from life.”

Records seen by Daily Maverick show he owned 50% of the unit, now valued at around R10-million, at one point, the rest of it belonging to two relatives.

I heard he bought two units there, bashed through a wall or two and turned it into one giant penthouse.”

In April 2016, just as the stink erupted around Trillian, Essa put a 738m² home on the market in the old-money suburb of Forest Town, just a few blocks from the Gupta compound. Ever the dealmaker, Essa sold it for R6.1-million, against a conservative municipal valuation of R2.9-m.

Final destination, Trillian

Curiously, this sale of that Forest Town property coincided with his arrival at Trillian where Essa had reigned supreme over senior staff and the books of the little start-up that was coining it out of deals with state-owned companies.

Cash in, cash out, transfers, loans and payments, Essa would direct money through Gupta-linked companies and front companies.

While he now sits in Dubai, those businessmen entangled by his crafty bookkeeping at the company are battling to lay their hands on enough paperwork to get their stories straight.

Essa had hoped Trillian would one day rival international consulting giants. It was so close to his heart that it unleashed the decorator in him.

The brief to the interior designers included his dislike for bulky furniture and the quest for a “Goldman Sachs, Four Seasons” feel for Trillian’s new office at Melrose Arch.

Salim asked for sheer weave blinds in the exec offices and meeting rooms as he feels they create a softer feel.”

This was his baby, at least on paper. He owned 100% of Trillian Holdings, a company that held a 60% stake in TCP.

While he fought those early State Capture fires that engulfed the company, Essa never let on that he was planning to jump ship.

On October 23 2016, Mosilo Mothepu, a former Trillian executive and key State Capture whistleblower, would rip the “hi-spec carpets” from under all that Trillian fancy schmancy.

The Sunday Times had splashed a front-page story headlined The dark heart of state capture, triggering an internal investigation into the company’s alleged State Capture ties and the fact that its owners had had prior knowledge that former president Jacob Zuma was about to fire then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene.

If Trillian was Essa’s reinvention bid, Mothepu’s tell-all statement was its unravelling.

He lingered at Trillian for another nine months, but in late June 2017 when senior advocate Geoff Budlender released the damning findings of that investigation, Essa was briefly spotted across the road at what was then JB’s Corner.

The company’s exco team, hoping to escape the packed press room, had gone out for an early lunch. No doubt sweating, outwardly Essa was confident when he popped in.

He said everything’s going to be okay. He sat for 10 minutes and settled the bill for the entire table and left.”

Essa resigned from Trillian a month later and on the same day the company transferred a mere R10,000 into his private Absa cheque account.

That’s R10k for a guy known to blow that much on a meal at Dubai’s Nusr-Et, the iconic meat joint made famous by Turkish butcher, Nusret Gokce, otherwise trending as “Saltbae”.

Well there was talk that he was squeezed for cash that time,” said one former connection.

Essa left his former Trillian partner, Eric Wood, to face a lone battle against Eskom which is demanding repayment of R600-million from the company. Wood told the High Court that Essa had bailed with hundreds of millions of rand in unpaid shareholder loans.

Sam or just Slim to those who matter to him, Samy to his State Capture cohorts, today Essa is said to be guarded, rarely has visitors to his home and struggles to really trust anyone in Dubai.

Well, he serves no purpose now?”

South Africa was his power base and once he had helped set up everything for the Gupta family’s grand trek to Dubai, what else was there for him to do, a friend asked.

As with all things involving the enigmatic Mr Essa, tales of a fallout with the Guptas could also just be part a great Chinese Wall mission, designed to create confusion and throw investigators off track.

What does not appear to be in dispute is that Dubai has become a lonely place for him.

This situation is curbing his freedom of movement; he is not made for confinement.”

Sure, he got the validation he so wanted as a young man, he made the money and showed everyone he was that guy when he cruised around the Melrose precinct in his flashy wheels.

But, at what price?” asked a former close friend, while a former associate says:

The Guptas, they are making new friends somewhere in Russia or one of the Stans [Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan]”.

Adding that Essa should come home and “pay back the money. Cleanse yourself and create a pathway for your boy.DM

Daily Maverick Scorpio conducted more than 12 interviews with people familiar with Essa and/or his Gupta days for this article. Nine others, including relatives and former government executives, did not respond to inquiries for assistance. Where possible, leaked information was verified.

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