The Zondo Commission has heard that it was in 2011 that the country’s top intelligence officials first began to question the Gupta family’s relationship with power.
Appearing before the State Capture inquiry, former spy boss Mo Shaik — brother of the more famous Schabir — said that a media report on the manner in which then-Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula had been appointed in an October 2010 Cabinet reshuffle first raised concerns about the Guptas among the country’s intelligence services.
The report in question claimed that Mbalula had told a meeting of the ANC’s NEC that he had been informed by one of the Gupta brothers that he was shortly to be made Sports Minister — ahead of his appointment to the post.
“We were taken aback by the issues that were in that report,” said Shaik.
As the spy bosses saw it, the report suggested one of three things.
First, there could have been a breach of national security occurring in the office of the president: in other words, someone could be leaking information to the Guptas, or the president’s communications could have been illegally intercepted. Second, the Guptas might themselves have overheard former president Jacob Zuma discussing Mbalula’s impending appointment, and be “peddling” that information for personal gain.
It was the third option that worried Shaik and his intelligence colleagues Gibson Njenje and Jeff Maqetuka the most:
“That [the Guptas] in fact actually suggested this appointment, which makes this even more serious, because as foreign nationals they are suggesting who should be in the national Cabinet of another government”.
Either of the three scenarios amounted to a threat to national security, however, so the intelligence bosses resolved to launch an investigation into the Gupta family.
Shaik told the Zondo commission:
“I was approached by the then-US ambassador stationed in Pretoria that the [US] State Department is concerned about the possible funding of Shiva Uranium, which is a Gupta-owned mine. They had reason to believe that such funding may be coming from Iran.”
If true, this was an international diplomatic nightmare. At the time, Barack Obama’s administration had been engaging in negotiations to lift sanctions against Iran: sanctions imposed as a result of Iran’s nuclear programme. Now, there was the suggestion that the South African-based Gupta family might be mining uranium on behalf of the Iranians.
“The consequences for South Africa would have been enormous,” Shaik said.
“We would have been seen to have been going rogue in violation of multilateral agreements. It would [mean] enormous financial consequences to the country if sanctions were then by necessity extended [by the US to South Africa].”
Shaik took these concerns to Zuma, and was “given reassurances” that Iranian money was not behind the Guptas’ uranium mine.
In combination with Mbalula’s claims, however, the time seemed ripe for an investigation of the Gupta family. At one of their customary Monday meetings, Shaik, Njenje and Maqetuka informed their deputies that an investigation into the Guptas should proceed.
But then-state security minister Siyabonga Cwele had different ideas. Only a few days later, the three intelligence officials were summoned to Cape Town for a meeting with the minister. It was, says Shaik, the only time in his tenure that he was called upon by a minister to explain an operation.
“I found it inappropriate,” Shaik told the Zondo commission.
“I would go so far as to say illegal — but then I would have required the courage to go and prove that illegality in court, and it was going to be a messy affair.”
The meeting that ensued with Cwele was “extremely confrontational”, Shaik recalled.
“Reason left the room when we entered, and we couldn’t find each other. The minister made the matter incredibly personal. He argued that the reason why we are doing this investigation is because we want to pursue or further the business objectives of Mr Njenje.”
Njenje was reported to be the director or shareholder of numerous private companies at the time, several of which were involved in the Guptas’ terrain of mining.
Njenje furiously denied any conflict of interests, recalled Shaik. He later told the commission that even if one of the three spy bosses had indeed had a conflict of interests in the investigation, that would not have been sufficient reason to squash the probe.
Asked by evidence leader Paul Pretorius how Minister Cwele would have found out about the business interests of Njenje, Shaik responded: “I can only assume he may have received that information from the Guptas themselves”.
Shaik added that, to his knowledge, the Gupta family had “a kind of intelligence operation going”, relying on their large number of security personnel picking up rumours and speculation.
Back at the meeting with Cwele, the minister also told the three spy bosses that Mbalula’s allegations were political matters which did not require the attention of the intelligence services. He instructed Shaik and his colleagues not to continue the investigation. Maqetuka suggested the matter should be discussed with Zuma directly instead.
“How did the meeting end?” asked Pretorius.
“Coldly,” replied Shaik, grinning.
At the subsequent meeting between the three and Zuma, Shaik testified that the former president began by broaching the topic of the Richard Mdluli report: the report conducted by police crime intelligence under Mdluli suggesting that a gathering of ANC leaders were plotting to topple Zuma.
A “veracity test” of the Mdluli report conducted by Maqetuka and his colleagues had determined that there was little credence to the report. Zuma, Shaik recalled, did not agree with his intelligence officials’ finding in this regard.
“[Zuma] says he has read our report; unfortunately he believes the Mdluli report, and so too does the minister, and he finds our report not to be standing the test of time,” Shaik said.
“We were all taken aback. I was taken aback, because I have a long history with President Zuma, particularly on matters of intelligence.”
Shaik testified that it seemed clear to the three men that they had already lost Zuma’s trust, but they ploughed on with the purpose of the meeting: to explain the need for an investigation into the Gupta family.
“He didn’t go off the handle. He didn’t scream or shout. He says: Fine, he hears us, but he would like to explain the Gupta family to us,” Shaik recalled.
“The president went into a rather long explanation about the Gupta family: of how he first met them, of how they were of assistance to Duduzane Zuma when no one was going to employ Duduzane; how they’ve helped him in certain of his own trials and tribulations; and they are simply a business family, and they were in fact introduced to the ANC and people in government rather by people associated with President Mbeki, and they are not a creation of his own making, but this is a continuation of a relationship which existed through the passage of time starting with the Mbeki administration.”
Zuma suggested that the Guptas were being targeted as part of a campaign to bring him down — part of a “victimisation narrative”, according to Shaik.
Shaik says that although Zuma did not explicitly instruct them to drop the investigation, he made it clear that the officials would be defying his wishes if they continued to probe the Guptas.
“Shamefully — I would have to say something rather shameful here — we left the meeting with the view that the investigation should not continue, and if it does continue, it’s going to continue at the cost of our jobs,” Shaik said.
Looking back, the former spy boss expressed frustration that the investigation into the Guptas was effectively stymied at that time.
“I got the sense that the minister [Cwele] didn’t believe that which was being alleged,” Shaik had said earlier.
“Not to take any perverse pleasure from this, but it did turn out to be correct. It was a disaster. And as a result I am sitting in front of you on a matter of State Capture.”
If the investigation had been permitted to go ahead, said Shaik, “we may be talking about different things now”. DM
Mo Shaik’s testimony to the Zondo Commission continues on Tuesday 26 November 2019.
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott