The #GuptaLeaks, five years later
Let’s just imagine what would have happened if the #GuptaLeaks never happened. That alternate history would have also been the end of South African history. We are truly proud of this contribution.
South Africa went through a period of extraordinary upheaval in 2017. Perhaps the most tumultuous period in this mess that was looking to find ways of self-resolving was the last week of March and the first of April.
At the end of March, Ahmed Kathrada died. The unimpeachable stalwart of the ANC we once knew, the man who was our remaining direct link to Mandela, he expressly forbade President Jacob Zuma, head of the beloved party he dedicated his life to, from his funeral.
At around the same time, Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas were fired as minister and deputy minister of finance. Zuma brought in his henchmen Malusi Gigaba and Sfiso Buthelezi to run the Treasury.
Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta were smacking their lips.
At the end of that second momentous week, we got our hands on the hundreds of thousands of Gupta family emails. South Africa was about to make a course correction.
Our country produced many heroes, but not many could match the bravery of the whistle-blowers who made this historic turn possible. Their courage was enormous, as was the personal price they themselves, and their families, were about to pay so this country would stand a chance.
After the first meeting with Brian Currin and Mark Heywood, and the next day with Daily Maverick CEO Styli Charalambous, Editor-in-Chief Branko Brkic met with amaBhungane’s Stefaans Brümmer to plot the way forward in what was to become South Africa’s own Watergate, aka the #GuptaLeaks.
Their plan: We do this properly. We do this together. All the way.
On 1 June 2017, the first set of stories from the #GuptaLeaks was published.
In the intervening eight weeks, we were betrayed, battered, worried sick, exhausted and PTSD-ed. We worked hard and under extreme duress. One of us had a massive car crash.
What was supposed to be our best effort to deeply understand the dark depths of the Gupta family’s capture of South Africa was temporarily to become an unnecessary race for headlines with our competitors.
One day after our first salvo of exposés, and in order to gain a wider audience for our investigations, we accepted News24 editor Adriaan Basson’s request to join the project.
All in all, the #GuptaLeaks team eventually involved more than 20 of South Africa’s top journalists and several international organisations, an early example of how different teams can gather together to tackle projects that transcend their individual abilities and strengths.
Dive into the #GuptaLeaks
- Ten revelations from the #GuptaLeaks that changed the course of SA
- Read the editorial that first announced the #GuptaLeaks
- This chapter from our book, We Have a Game Changer, tells the story of how the #GuptaLeaks came to be
- Watch the first meeting of the team who exposed the #GuptaLeaks
A gestalt that we created for the #GuptaLeaks formed bonds that will never be broken. A sense of mission and the common purpose that everyone on the team shared will not easily be matched again. We were so committed to the project that we even decided to forgo individual bylines.
From the earliest days of the project, our major concern was the whistle-blowers’ and team’s safety and the integrity of the data and our research.
After a major betrayal, we ended up scooped by the Sunday Times and City Press, but in the longer run, amaBhungane’s many years of near-maniacal concentration on all things Gupta was our secret superpower that no one could match.
The involvement of our competitors also widened the media participation so that it became impossible to stop it, even through repression. The field was strangely uncontested by the Guptas and their assorted accomplices. The Hawks chose to remain quiet, leaking to City Press that our stories were derived from a criminal act and were therefore inadmissible (both claims incorrect). And the NPA… what NPA?
All in all, we published more than 70 exposés, and, together with the contributions from Sunday Times, Business Day, Financial Mail and City Press, the lid on the Guptas’ takeover of South Africa was forever blown.
Zuma and his family were exposed for being kept people.
Politicians and other assorted Gupta lackeys were suddenly out of their shadows: Ace Magashule, Malusi Gigaba, Des van Rooyen, Mosebenzi Zwane, Lynne Brown, Brian Molefe, Anoj Singh, Matshela Koko, Siyabonga Gama, and dozens more.
International companies like Bell Pottinger, McKinsey, SAP, Liebherr, China South and China North railways and many more suffered massive hits to their image and ability to conduct business in South Africa. All over the country, people suddenly knew where the White Monopoly Capital slogan was cooked, what Estina was, why Oakbay is fatally tainted and how McKinsey tried to fleece Eskom.
Possibly the most consequential result of the #GuptaLeaks was arguably in the ANC’s internal sphere: it was impossible to claim ignorance about the Guptas anymore. After Makhosi Khoza first went strongly against the brothers, the CR17 campaign seemingly acquired a new zest for an anti-corruption stance, which ultimately carried them to the win at the 2017 Nasrec conference.
(Even then, they won against Zuma’s chosen successor, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, by only 179 votes, a clear warning of how deeply entrenched was the State Capture bunch within the nerve centre of South Africa’s ruling party.)
Talking about nerves, Jacob Zuma needed full control over his runaway face lines as the cameras of the world trained on his face upon learning that Cyril Ramaphosa would be the next ANC president.
This theatre of self-control was missed by the three main impresarios – the Gupta brothers were out of the country, by then. Most of their money already externalised, they did not need the aggravation any more. That, and the threat of a multitude of court cases with them as central characters.
Five years later, the brothers Gupta and their close collaborator Salim Essa are sanctioned by the Magnitsky Act in the US. Rajesh and Atul are under an Interpol Red Notice. And a few second-tier lieutenants and enablers have been arrested. That’s pretty much it.
As we watched the last five years of the fight against State Capture, many of us from the team that started it all have good reason to be disappointed about what happened since then. Zuma and the Gupta lieutenants have fought much harder than most could have expected. Will we ever know the full picture and will the people who brought South Africa to the edge, and still keep it close to the edge, ever pay the price they deserve for their sins? It is difficult to predict. Some of them are even actively trying to change the meaning of “sin”. Most just behave as if they’ve been right all along.
South Africa’s badly damaged state was left to recover after the Capture, a task that was met with mostly failing grades, though some signs of the action are finally starting to be visible, including the recent arrest of the Gupta’s right hand, former Oakbay CEO Ronica Ragavan and her co-accused.
Chief Justice Raymond Zondo and his State Capture Commission have put a gigantic and valiant effort into understanding the magnitude and depth of what happened to our country, and the largest chunk of it was connected to the Gupta brothers. The size of the problem and the quantum of damage, however, are likely to overwhelm the South African state’s resources.
And yet, let’s just imagine what would have happened if the #GuptaLeaks never happened. That alternate history would have also been the end of South African history. We are truly proud of this contribution.
But once more, let’s honour the whistle-blowers who are still silent about their contribution. They were the true heroes. One day we hope we will be able to walk with them, their heads held high, and announce to South Africa who was so crucial in bringing the Guptas down.
Until such time, our friends, we know who you are. In the name of the entire country, we salute you for your courage and selflessness. You could have made the more comfortable choices. You chose the only right one, which also happened to be the most painful. South Africa is forever in your debt. DM
PS The #GuptaLeaks team ended up winning every award available, from Taco Kuiper to Vodacom, and from Nat Nakasa to Global Shining Light award, which we proudly shared in Hamburg 2019 with the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa’s Rappler. Our wins do not in any way diminish great efforts from our competitors/colleagues from The Sunday Times, Business Day, Financial Mail and City Press. All of us, together, have changed the country.