🔒 The New York Times catches up with Ajay Gupta

EDINBURGH — The Gupta brothers got away with helping the Zuma family to plunder state coffers, building a massive business empire on the back of ‘state capture’. After at least a decade of drawing on ANC contacts and fuelling political tension, Ajay Gupta rose to become one of South Africa’s richest people. As Jacob Zuma was removed from power by the ANC, the Gupta family fled from justice. Ajay Gupta has given a rare interview to The New York Times in which he reveals that he remains unrepentant about the family’s involvement in damaging South Africa’s political establishment. He, unexpectedly, denies all wrong-doing, including offering golden handcuffs to – and threatening to kill – Mcebisi Jonas to persuade him to sway decisions as a finance minister in the favour of the Gupta family. – Jackie Cameron

By Thulasizwe Sithole

Ajay Gupta, arguably among the most-hated men in South Africa for his role in corrupting the ANC and raiding state coffers, has given a rare interview to journalists. Speaking from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Gupta told The New York Times that he has been obsessively following “the news from home” with increasing frustration.

“Nearly every day for the past couple of months, witnesses at a high-profile inquiry on corruption have painted his family as the masterminds of the government looting that has engulfed the nation,” the publication tells its readers.

“The accusations infuriate him. But Mr. Gupta and his two brothers, who left South Africa early this year when President Jacob Zuma was forced out of power, have no plans to go back and give their side of the story — at least not yet. They say they fear wrongful arrests if they return to South Africa, a country where their power appeared uncontested less than a year ago.

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File Photo: Ajay Gupta being interviewed by Stephen Grootes.

“The inquiry’s leaders have rejected the Guptas’ offers to testify by video conference or other means — creating the possibility that a wide-ranging government inquiry determined to ferret out the truth will not hear from some of the main characters.

“I’m not saying that I’m not coming to the commission,” Ajay Gupta, the oldest brother, said in Dubai, where the family is now based. “I will, but not this moment.”

He added, “I want to clear my name.”

The New York Times says that South Africa’s inquiry into state corruption has gripped the nation with its glimpses into the byzantine ways power has been amassed and wielded within the African National Congress, the party that has run the country since the end of apartheid. Scheming politicians, powerful bankers and prominent officials have featured prominently in the ever-lengthening cast of characters.

In his first extensive interview since leaving South Africa, Gupta, 53, “forcefully rejected accusations made in the hearings against his family, including that he and his brothers offered ministerial positions on the president’s behalf in return for favours”. “Instead of being the architects of government corruption — what has become known in South Africa as state capture — Mr. Gupta said his family was caught in the crossfire between rival ANC factions and their business allies,” is the message Ajay Gupta delivered through The New York Times.

Gupta claims the family was the victim of politically motivated law enforcement authorities and a witch hunt that could not stand scrutiny in court. “Despite the many accusations that his family essentially defrauded the government by siphoning off enormous sums of money from government contracts and other deals, Mr. Gupta noted that prosecutors had charged them only once, in a case involving a dairy farm.”

The South African judiciary comes in for a roasting from The New York Times. “In significant setbacks, prosecutors have twice failed to prove that the money siphoned from the dairy farm project, called Estina, directly benefited Mr. Gupta or other companies linked to the Gupta family. A high court judge released most of the assets frozen in the case in March, and the court ruled in favour of the companies linked to the Guptas again in May. A separate criminal case is still underway.”

“Was Ajay Gupta or Gupta family proven guilty? One place? One smallest thing?” Gupta asked in his interview.

In recent weeks the spotlight in South Africa has been on Nhlanhla Nene, “widely considered, until a few weeks ago, as a hero in the fight against corruption in the Zuma administration”. “This month, Nene testified that he had been fired by Zuma as finance minister in late 2015 after he refused to endorse a nuclear energy deal that critics said was meant to enrich the former president’s business allies — a pivotal episode in the ANC’s recent history,” note the US media organisation’s correspondents.

The New York Times explains how, under pressure from an opposition party, Nene — who was reappointed finance minister by Ramaphosa this year — acknowledged in the hearings that he had previously lied, in public, about his meetings with the Gupta family.

“Mr. Nene, who had said in the past that he had never visited the Guptas’ residence, said he had in fact done so on multiple occasions — even after becoming finance minister in 2014.

“I was not requested to do anything to benefit the Gupta family or Mr. Ajay Gupta, nor was I offered any inducement,” he said in his statement to the commission.

“Mr. Nene issued an apology to the nation about the visits to the Gupta home, and he was forced to resign last week,” said the US-based news outlet.

In the exclusive interview with The New York Times, Gupta moved to defend Nene and denied allegations that his family had pulled political strings. “Forget Nene,” he said. “We never asked any minister for any commercial benefit.”

“Over the years, Mr. Gupta said, countless senior politicians from the ANC and the opposition had visited his home.

“Who did not come and meet me? Or I not meet with them?” Gupta asked the journalists.

He added: “Meeting with people, there’s nothing wrong. Every business organisation meets with the politicians and the people.”

In Dubai, Gupta argued that the commission was simply not interested in hearing his side of the story.

“In one of the most explosive hearings, a former deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, said Mr. Zuma’s son, Duduzane, took him to the Gupta residence in Johannesburg in late October 2015. Duduzane Zuma had worked for years for the Gupta family,” recaps The New York Times.

There, Mr. Jonas said, a Gupta brother offered to make him the finance minister.

“The Gupta brother, he said, offered to make him rich in return for favourable treatment in the position.

“Mr. Gupta repeated that they had information on me and that if I suggested that the meeting had occurred, they would kill me,” Jonas is reported as saying.

In the Public Protector’s 2016 report, says The New York Times, Jonas said that the Gupta brother who made him the offer was Ajay, the oldest. But in the recent hearing, Mr. Jonas said that he was “relatively certain” that it was Ajay. He raised the “possibility that it might have been Rajesh,” the youngest Gupta brother.

In the interview with The New York Times, Ajay Gupta said he was not home during the meeting between Jonas and Zuma’s son. His brother Rajesh “did not meet with Jonas at all,” Ajay Gupta said. “He just came into the room for a fraction of a second, and say hello to Dudu.”

“Nobody from the family was there,” he said.