What gives Gupta such influence over SA’s President?

The proprietor of The New Age as he appeared in his own newspaper
The proprietor of The New Age as he appeared in his own newspaper – massive influence over Zuma

By Alec Hogg

The House of Cards is my favourite television show. Apparently, fellow West Ham United fan Barack Obama is also a close follower. Word has it the Leader of the Free World asked where he could get an advance copy of the Second Season which premieres in the US on Friday. Hopefully Multichoice won’t be far behind.

For those who haven’t discovered the series, it features Kevin Spacey as manipulative Congressman Frank Underwood. As the First Season ended he was on the brink of becoming the US’s Vice President. Perhaps. During the various twists in his snake and ladders ascension, we learnt that his appointment is conditional on the approval of an outsider. The US President (Garrett Walker) has a tight but hidden relationship with a multi-billionaire (Raymond Tusk). They are so close that the President does nothing important without first checking whether it suits his rich and powerful pal.

A couple of recent events got me wondering whether we in South Africa are living with a real life version of the gripping series.

While in Davos, I met an Indian newspaper editor who proudly informed me he had interviewed my country’s President. After smiling at my surprise, he told about recently accompanying an Indian Business delegation to SA. At one of the cocktail functions he made small talk with Atul Gupta, head of Sahara Computers, proprietor of the New Age newspaper and, via his shell ICT, attempted hijacker of the Sishen iron ore mine’s mineral rights.

The way my new acquaintance told the story, he mentioned to Gupta how he would love to interview Jacob Zuma (wouldn’t we all?). No problem, said the New Age bossman, and a few minutes later the surprised editor heard the South African President being instructed to make time for this interview. The astonished Indian newspaperman duly got his face time with Zuma. But wondered privately to me at the influence of Atul Gupta who was able to swing something so difficult with such ease.

On Monday the media received a breakdown of Jacob Zuma’s diarised events for the most important day of his year – Thursday, February 13th. That’s when he delivers the annual State of the Nation address. The speech is scheduled for 7pm followed by a gala dinner. The next day is dominated by Parliamentary debates during which, one hopes, opposition politicians pose some tough questions.

Instead of spending Friday morning preparing himself for the likely barrage to come, Zuma will be up before the sparrows after his late night dinner. He is the star attraction at a 6am breakfast hosted by Gupta’s New Age newspaper. To describe this as a major coup for Gupta is an understatement. But he must be getting used to such public displays of influence. Not long ago Gupta commandeered the Waterkloof Air Force base as the landing point for dozens of his Indian guests brought here for a family wedding.

A greater achievement, perhaps, was getting the Department of Mineral Resources to co-fund an audacious mineral rights hijacking attempt over the fully operational Sishen iron ore mine. Thankfully, SA’s courts proved their independence on that score and sent Gupta’s ICT packing. But not before ArcelorMittal embarrassed itself by including the fabulously wealthy Indian immigrant as a beneficiary in a proposed BEE consortium that stood to gain billions from the steel-maker’s shareholders.

As none of the lapdog journalists Zuma lets near will ever do so, isn’t it time for the Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela, to ask the obvious question? The one our whole nation would love answered. Which is: Where did Gupta acquire such powers of persuasion that the President of Africa’s largest economy turns to putty in his hands?

Many have the uneasy feeling that Zuma is the Garrett Walker to Gupta’s Raymond Tusk. From what I’ve seen recently, it’s hard to conclude otherwise. And that, for our young Democracy, is not exactly a healthy state of affairs.

* Alec Hogg, a writer and broadcaster, is the founder and publisher of