Simon Lincoln Reader: A neighbour’s perspective – living next door to Gupta

Simon Lincoln Reader
Simon Lincoln Reader

Over the past few years, Gupta has become one of the less appealing surnames in South Africa. The immigrant Indian family which bears it, has become synonymous with much that has gone wrong in the young democracy. So for many South Africans today, a corrupt person is described as having been “Gupta-rised”, someone unethically indebted to another has been “Gupta-ed” and so on. Before relocating to London, Simon Lincoln Reader (right) used to be the Gupta family’s neighbour, having to daily wind his way past their high walled compound in Saxonwold, one of Johannesburg’s better suburbs. In this superbly written piece, he offers a unique perspective. You get exposed to a lot of below the radar stuff living next door to someone. Especially, in this case, a family of “businessmen” whose opportunism has generated enormous wealth in double quick time. Reader’s previous contributions have been wildly popular among the Biznews community. There is no doubt this one will continue that trend. – Alec Hogg  

By Simon Lincoln Reader*

I used to live near to the Guptas in Saxonwold, and now I live near to some of their reputation managers in London, which is equally annoying and unnatural, because no man not yet forty should have such extensive experience of such a preposterous industry. But before I am read extracts of a riot act on a Friday afternoon by a jumped-up English reputation manager on her way to Verbier for the weekend, I make the following disclaimer: the Gupta’s themselves were perfectly reasonable neighbours.

Sahara Estate – Atul, Ajay and Rajesh’s family compound – is situated opposite Saxonwold’s most striking feature – the Archangel monument – the shrine to the patriotic war fallen on the grounds of the war museum. Surrounded by Jacaranda-lined avenues, the property is immediately imposing due to the size of its perimeter walls, but I recall being unimpressed with the original mansion: seen through gates from Saxonwold’s arterial road (below), it was as if a brief to build a replica of the White House had been tendered to Ceausescu’s favorite architect.

gupta gates

Waspy suburbs are filled with well-intended curiosity: ‘nice, hard working Indian family originally from the sub continent, lots of kids, treats their mother well, had a shoe shop once in Killarney Mall’ I remember one of the neighbours – a spinster – declaring shortly after I moved in. But another neighbour, a lawyer, was suspicious of the name of the Gupta’s computer business, ‘Sahara’, as it was already the name of another Indian company – the Sahara Construction Conglomerate. ‘Nonsense,’ he replied when I suggested there might be some relation, ‘I’ve checked it out, there’s nothing, that’s a mischievous fusion.

It was only after Jacob Zuma’s election as President that scrutiny of the Gupta’s activities amplified.

It started in 2010 when the Department of Mineral Resources awarded an alleged Gupta-associated consortium, Imperial Crown Trading (ICT), a stake in the lucrative Sishen Iron Ore mine in the Northern Cape – despite ICT having no experience in mining. It emerged the Gupta’s had employed Zuma’s son, Duduzane. At the time South African Airways, Eskom, the South African Broadcasting Corporation and other parastatals were being decimated by early-stage ANC cadre deployment – but there was no mention of Gupta interference.

When a Gupta-chartered jet ferrying wedding guests from India landed at Waterkloof Military Base in 2013 and breached just about every immigration protocol ever legislated, the media exposed the family in a manner that alarmed my neighbours, hitherto almost exclusively preoccupied by the cost of private school fees and home security systems.

Suddenly the Guptas were accused of landing their helicopter at Zoo Lake without permission and ignoring municipal by-laws in what seemed like perpetual alterations to many of the structures on the rapidly expanding estate. They were accused of blocking the sewer, building too high, too big. They were accused of building too many kitchens – but one neighbour cautioned a reasonable explanation for this: ‘considering the number of visitors,’ he said, ‘Rogan Josh simply does not cook itself.’

There were indeed many visitors – and this is here that my one indirect skirmish with the Guptas unfolded. When motorcades – belonging to either the family or a high profile visitor – entered or exited the premises, an ageing white security guard would scramble into the road like a maniac and block both lanes of passing traffic to allow Sahara Estate exclusive access. The guard resembled a Captain of an Eastern Transvaal golf club in 1975 and was fond of the ‘f’ word in respective English and Afrikaans applications. It was in 2010 when we first clashed.

Zuma had cut short a State Visit to India, ostensibly to confront allegations that one of his bodyguards (since deceased) had impregnated one of his wives. One morning during the week the story broke, I drove into the back of a Sahara Estate blockade. Impatiently I threw my hands up at Infantryman Kirk Douglas who responded with a charge of bi-lingual profanities. Assuming it was unlikely that such a visibly overcooked person would be issued a firearm, I replied in kind. Then it was war.

I never saw him smile, and when he saw me, his eyes marbled over like a statue of a Boer wife at the Voortrekker Monument, captured in stone telling her children something dreadful had just happened to their father. When he wasn’t playing amateur spoedkop, he was sat on a plastic chair in his patchwork leather jacket, smoking, drinking out of a polystyrene cup – or flashing other neighbours the bird.Gupta_residence_Saxonwold

His notoriously uninspiring legend so cast; one neighbour suggested we all contribute so he could be pensioned off to Margate as soon as possible – one housewife on maternity leave even designed a cover for a fund raising manual, superimposing his face onto Damien Hirst’s *shark suspended in the tank of formaldehyde.

As Zuma’s first term as President neared its end, I started seeing Sahara Estate through shifting dimensions of the country’s historical allegiances. This was the era of BRICS hype, led by the Indian Tiger and the Chinese Dragon, accompanied by an increasingly belligerent but familiar Russia and a cheerful but useless Brazilian leader whose only notable achievement was to claim that the global financial crisis of 2008/9 ‘was caused by white men with blue eyes’.

At the end of 2012 I saw a photograph of Atul Gupta seated in the front row of the ANC elective conference in Manguang. I thought back to when they met, reportedly in 2003, the arc of a relationship now accelerated to symbolism; in Zuma, the Guptas had found a candidate, a man from the past, a dangerous but injured traditionalist – someone who believed that those who ascended before him had burnt the ladder behind them.

In the Guptas, Zuma had found a counsel he almost certainly wouldn’t within in the company of white capital, whom he probably thought jeered at his elementary grasp of economics.

Despite steadily gathering evidence, it is not yet proven that the decision to sack Nhlanhla Nene was influenced by Sahara Estate. But closer analysis of December 9th 2015 reflects a type of primitive thinking that only occurs in environments absent of procedural checks and balances.

For example: any attempt to internationalize a provincial patronage scheme would only be executed by people who considered themselves immune from consequence. To get what you want in the corrupt, rural provinces where Zuma’s support lies, this is the undocumented but largely accepted process: you contact the Premier’s office and work his sequences, money changes hands, the Premier consults the tribal elders, fridges and televisions are purchased, you accept an invitation to attend a ceremony, you meet the Premier, you shake hands, you tie the adolescent girl the tribal chiefs have gifted you onto the back of a truck and return to Johannesburg.

Barring minor changes, this is the model that was set to contaminate the Treasury in December. The Guptas have furiously denied any involvement but in doing so, emphasized awkward irony: if you do not think like this, then why allow yourselves to be defended by people who clearly do?

One of my neighbours, an engineer, was probably the oddest man I’ve ever encountered. The child of communists, he made a fortune but remains deeply sympathetic, speaking of life through human conditions. ‘If allegations that Sahara Estate has been meddling are true’, he told me recently, ‘then these are extensions of practices employed from Toronto to Sydney to Harare that have become particularly aggressive over the last 60 years, proven by the mere existence of the reputation management industry.

‘It is ridiculous to finger the Guptas as originators of a system that, through lobbying or industry-complex vehicles and despite appearances, has corrupted places like Washington and London. Liberals gnashing their teeth about the Guptas and calling Donald Trump a white bully have clearly forgotten a man called Tiny Rowland, or that someone called Vladimir Putin has ruled the Russian State since 2000.’

The Guptas are being defended by a lunatic fringe of the ANC led by the one-armed former military camp cook Kebby Maphatsoe, supported by the oily Collen Maine, head of the ANC’s Youth League who is in inexplicable receipt of a R4.5m bond from the Bank of India, and Bathebile Dlamini, head of the ANC Women’s League – and a convicted beneficiary of Parliamentary travel voucher fraud. The Gupta-owned newspaper, The New Age, employs writers prepared to blend the issue of ‘state capture’ with race and shamelessly attack the South African Rupert family with planted evidence.

Occupying a nervous line between them and the political and media extremes demanding the Guptas are deported back to Uttar Pradesh stands Saxonwold. ‘Some of what I’m hearing makes me uncomfortable, reminds me of 2013’, one of my former neighbours who now lives in Cape Town told me. ‘When a few of the allegations emerged about their renovations, it felt as though someone had approached the council just because they are who they are, like someone wanted to deliberately create animosity. Everyone wants to hear Sahara Estate is an evil nucleus that once accommodated Osama bin Laden. It’s not.’

Another neighbour agrees: ‘It is not illegal for any family to host Cabinet Ministers, and it’s not illegal for Ministers to visit any family – but one hopes they do so to enhance official obligations. In that sense the only thing worse than supposed “state capture” is the ANC’s reaction to it, which portrays ministers and officials as vulnerable simpletons snatched from behind rocks, easily manipulated, incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong.’

I think back to the white security guard and cannot help feel that he would have been fired had I told the Guptas he was terrorizing the neighbourhood. It is highly unlikely the Guptas instructed him to behave like such an oik – but I imagine he was outsourced, and their interaction was limited. ‘Nowadays’, the spinster told me in March, ‘we receive invitations to their religious festivals. The family plays by the rules and as far as I’m concerned, always has.’

Its important that a responsible distinction be made: it’s no thanks to the Guptas that Zuma’s deluded politics – those that believe the National Development Plan, supposedly the country’s economic messiah, can be elevated and emphasized alongside its nemesis, the National Democratic Revolution – have been savaged. BRICS, this grouping conceived by the choice-grade Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill (whose bosses closed his burdensome unit upon his resignation), is a fallacy. His flirtations with genocidal dictators have humiliated his party in the courts. He is the marshal of his own political calamity – his leadership just a continuum of the logic he demonstrated in court in 2006 when he was on trial for rape: ‘when a woman is lying in that state,’ he said, ‘you cannot just leave her’.

If an impartial probe one day reveals the length and breadth of the Gupta influence on the state, then it will speak to the quality of the ANC Polokwane election conference of 2007, the avarice or folly of men and women who genuinely believe that if you grew up in a certain way and were subjected to certain things, you are entitled to certain discretionary spoils – so to hell with the Constitution, the poor, the notion of public service or any other western-inspired paradigm.

On the day that Zuma was found guilty of violating the constitution, my engineer neighbour called to remind me of an incident that neither of us can confirm.

It involved the Gupta wedding at Sun City in 2013, where it was reported black staff were instructed not to touch or breathe upon wedding delegates, the assumption being that that the staff were filthy or unhygienic. The story went that one lady employed was traumatized by the instruction and told her father, who took similar exception. So he procured the services of a rural wizard, whom he paid a nominal fee to travel to Johannesburg and cast a spell on Sahara Estate.

The story went that the poor druid, unfamiliar with the city, lost his bearings and wandered the streets until sunset, unable to locate the compound. Not wanting to renege on his agreement, he decided to curse the entire suburb before he climbed into a taxi and left.

‘Maybe,’ my friend said, ‘it wasn’t just the suburb.

  • Simon Reader works for an energy investment and political advisory firm and is based in London.
  • Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living