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The Unbearable Arrogance Of Being Ajay Gupta

12/02/2018 8:12 PM IST | Updated 12/02/2018 9:16 PM IST
Rapport/Elizabeth Sejake
Ajay Gupta snapped during a visit to Optimum coal mine. The image appeared in Rapport on Sunday.

Reams have been written about the audacious story of how the simpleton Gupta family came to South Africa, ripped off a nation and disfigured its politics. But this image published yesterday in HuffPost's sister title, Rapport, really sticks in my craw, for it tells the story in a single shot.

Taken by photographer Elizabeth Sejake, the image features the oldest Gupta brother, Ajay, at the Optimum mine they practically hijacked.

With him is their family's holding company Oakbay's CEO, Ronica Ragavan, along with burly white security guards and various flunkies.

Optimum, the purchase of which was funded by a prepayment from Eskom, is out of cash and not paying its contractors. So Gupta and Ragavan landed there last week by chopper.

WHAT DOES THIS IMAGE TELL YOU?

Rapport/Elizabeth Sejake
Ajay Gupta and Ronica Ragavan landing at Optimum coal mine in Mpumalanga on Tuesday. Photo: ELIZABETH SEJAKE

It says that after months and months of revelations, detailing how the Guptas set about state capture by honing in on state-owned companies and by leveraging their relationship with President Jacob Zuma, the family is still hustling in South Africa as if they were legitimate businesspeople.

Yet we now know that their books were dodgy, as KPMG faces multiple inquiries into how it gave them a clean bill of health in successive audits.

Since I first went to interview the family at their Sahara computers head office in Midrand in 2012, it's struck me that they seem to distrust black people in their closest relationships

It tells you that the criminal justice system cranks along too slowly – in a country where the rule of law was working effectively, they would have been in jail or back home in Saharanpur, India, keeping a beady eye out for the long arm of the law reaching for them.

They operate with impunity and always have, treating our country like a fiefdom.

WHAT'S WITH BEING SURROUNDED BY WHITES?

Since I first went to interview the family at their Sahara computers head office in Midrand in 2012, it's struck me that they seem to distrust black people in their closest relationships, and prefer being served by white people. Look at the image, and you will see that all their security guards are inevitably white guys, and their secretaries are most often white women. I always found this an odd employment practice for a family that says it is black, and which claims its businesses are built as exemplars of "what black empowerment can be".

During the family's blockbuster wedding at Sun City in 2013, the #Guptaleaks emails revealed they only wanted to be massaged, pummeled and primped by white beauty therapists at the resort's spa.

For them, I think, it says, "We have arrived," in the same way that landing a private jet at Waterkloof air force base ahead of the wedding would have done.

This practice, I'd contend, is less about wanting to overturn racial ideas of who serves and who is served, but more about the perceived prestige of being waited upon by white staff. For them, I think, it says, "We have arrived," in the same way that landing a private jet at Waterkloof air force base ahead of the wedding would have done.

The image says a lot about how the rotund Gupta has operated since he came to South Africa in the Nineties. For him, South Africa is a colony and black people malleable, all with a price on their heads. He treats the beloved country as if it were a banana republic, where rich men with dosh toss it around to extract massive fortunes through capture and bribery.

A former government official who spent a lot of time in Saxonwold told me years ago that he would always joke with visitors: "Hey, you want to be a minister? I can make you a minister."

He is the brother who offered former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas the role of finance minister when Zuma was plotting to topple Pravin Gordhan. All Jonas had to do was their bidding, and he would get a cash deposit and millions more later, Ajay told him.

Jonas turned it down, and his revelation offered a fascinating window into how cynically he built the family fortune. A former government official who spent a lot of time in Saxonwold told me years ago that he would always joke with visitors: "Hey, you want to be a minister? I can make you a minister."

A NINCOMPOOP

Ajay Gupta is said to be a bit of a recluse, and the younger brother, Atul, has often been the face of the family, as he is more outgoing. What is not in doubt is that Ajay Gupta worked out the strategy of capture. He is a commerce graduate and has an honorary doctorate from JV Jain Degree College, which is not an Indian Ivy League institution.

Nincompoop (noun): a foolish or stupid person.Merriam-Webster online dictionary

Yet in a few interviews, Ajay repeatedly comes across as a nincompoop and a simpleton. This infuriates me, as it means the barrier to capture is set low in South Africa that it was this easy for a man of so little sophistication and style to undertake the strategy that has harmed our country and policy.

In an interview with his lawyer at the end of last year, as he denied the veracity of the #Guptaleaks emails, Ajay Gupta said: "One more interesting thing, you please note it down. I never did email in my life. I am illiterate. I don't know how to do the SMS, even, forget about, even WhatsApp or anything. My secretary receives the email and she opens it, she prints it and brings it to me if it comes to that."

The most fundamental signal of respect is to pronounce somebody's name properly, and the fact that Gupta has not even managed this reveals how he sees these political leaders.

While President Jacob Zuma enabled feverish accumulation of significant wealth for the family, Gupta, for example, cannot even pronounce "Zuma" which sounds like "Jooma" on his tongue. Another Cabinet member under their patronage, mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane, is massacred to "Jwane" when Gupta speaks about him.

The most fundamental signal of respect is to pronounce somebody's name properly, and the fact that Gupta has not even managed this reveals how he sees these political leaders.

Gallo Images via Getty Images
Ajay and Atul Gupta.

There is a final giveaway that reveals that for the oldest Gupta brother, the rule of law and integrity in South Africa mean very little. We all know, graphically, that the family has built an extensive empire of riches from their capture of South Africa. Yet, here's what Gupta told his lawyer at the end of last year as he began preparing for a possible appearance before a parliamentary inquiry:

"No, on record I can say that I am not a shareholder of any company, I don't have any assets in any part of the world, except the room my father used to sleep [in], personally that's all [I have].

"I don't have any share, any board (position), any property, any fixed property, whatever you call that. Maybe one car or something, I only have that one room my father used to sleep [in]."

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