Nine months ago, the eldest of the Gupta brothers took a calculated risk. Doubtless on the advice of expensive London communications consultants Bell Pottinger, Ajay Gupta offered a no-holds-barred interview to South African journalist Stephen Grootes. With conditions, of course. As there always are with SA’s infamous crony capitalist immigrants from India. Before being granted his “scoop” Grootes had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. And agree that the interview would only be released after Bell Pottinger was given the opportunity to do a “light edit”. Thanks to a malevolent insider, the plan has backfired. Spectacularly. An edited version (23 minutes compared with the full hour) has surfaced online. It shows how Grootes threw forthright questions from the outset, never giving Ajay Gupta a chance to get onto the front foot. No amount of editing would prevent Gupta from coming across as incoherent, inauthentic and, as disclosed by the Public Protector subsequent to the February discussion prove, a bald-faced liar. Not surprisingly, despite Grootes’s urgings that Bell Pottinger honour its commitment, the interview was buried. Writing about it in the Daily Maverick he complains that the agency hasn’t even had the courtesy to return the recording device he agreed to leave with them. Grootes says “I knew at the time that the Guptas were of dubious morality. I did not expect them to be outright thieves.” Here, belatedly, is our front row seat. – Alec Hogg
Ajay Gupta: Good morning Stephen. Good morning to all of your viewers.
How would you describe your relationship with the President and thus, to an extent, your place in South Africa?
From my side or the family’s side, our relations with President Zuma is very simple, like all of the business community people have with any president. We have relations, what you call a friendship. We have everything, before also with the other president (Mbeki). So I don’t feel any difference in this relation to what we’re having now and previously, different with someone else on this thing.
Is it a relationship where he does things for you?
Having a relation is not an issue, whether he’s doing something for me… That’s the most important question for everyone. I can say categorically that we never asked…… why he’s going to do anything for us?
So, you’ve never asked anything from him?
We’ve never asked that. You can bring any person that would say that we asked the President to do this thing.
Has he ever offered to do anything for you?
Nothing to do with him, you’re going to ask why it’s possibly going to be offered to you. I don’t believe all these things.
It’s claimed, and I mean this is a claim I’m putting to you. That you and your family will call up a Minister appointed by President Jacob Zuma and tell that Minister what to do. Is that claim nonsense? Is it not true?
Not true at all. That’s why I say very, categorically not true and not at all.
Gwede Mantashe, the ANC Secretary General, I don’t know if you’ve met him before?
Yes, I will not deny that. I’ve met a few times with him.
He’s hinted that he believes certain ANC leaders have been captured by corporate interests. Now I think you know enough about Mr Mantashe, to know he’s one of the best politicians this country has ever produced.
When he uses that phrase, it strikes me that he is attacking you, when he says ‘corporate interests’ he knows exactly how that will play.
Yes, but why do you think that he’s attacking us?
Which other corporate interests could he be talking about?
Many. All business people have a relation, and all corporate entities in this country have it. We have a very small business that we’ve already been saying many times that we are not more than 1% of the Stock Exchange of this country. Or wealth wise maybe less than that, so how you can presume that he’s attacking on the family?
But he knows exactly how that comment will be interpreted. There is no other group of people or any other group of companies who’ve been in the political press as much as you have. He knows that that will only be interpreted in one way, and suggesting that President Jacob Zuma, who he used to be friends with, has been captured by you. Why would the ANC Secretary General say that?
You see again, again I say to you that this is an assumption, he never took our name, so it’s very much un-useful to be commenting on this thing, which has not been. If someone really wants to say you… Nobody can. He’s a strong character. He’s a strong politician. Why does he have to say something in hidden words? He can directly say to us, he can directly take us down. There is nobody holding him at all. He’s a respectable leader in this country, so I don’t believe that whatever he doesn’t want to say on that, and someone else has to comment on this thing.
Is Des van Rooyen, now the Minister of Corporate of Governance, is he someone you know?
How or what…? It’s not important that I know him…
Does he come to visit you at home?
Okay let me categorically say that I haven’t seen him before, when he became the (Finance) Minister and one day, one of my colleagues reminded me, ‘No, we saw him at one of the parties,’ I don’t know where it is, one of the gatherings. That he was standing next to Kebby (Maphatsoe), so he was…like I’m asking to my people that, ‘oh this new Finance Minister how do you know him?’ He’s a new gentleman. We’ve never met him and we’ve never seen him, so they reminded me that, ‘no, we saw him that day that he was standing next to Kebby, he was standing.’
Before that, even before he became the Finance Minister, we met one more time. I’m going further also, so there’s the air to be cleared one time, forever. Then when we have this time, a few days before, when we decided, or Exco decided we had to be present as guests. In this meeting, he was also there, and he recognised us. We did not, at that time because when you don’t know much people so closely, so it’s very difficult but then immediately it struck, yes.
This is the reply of that but my question is still standing – nothing wrong. Everybody meets with the Ministers. They are right and if Guptas meet with the Ministers or anybody, they’re wrong. Why? It’s something, I don’t know but you have to make it out. What’s the reason that the Guptas have been targeted, or our family had been targeted? That we have to find out. We have to be asking questions. What is the reason behind it?
Mosebenzi Zwane flew with your family to Switzerland.
That’s absolutely rubbish.
His spokesperson has confirmed it.
So, he has to answer to that. See, again, I’m telling you that it’s absolutely rubbish. No other family member or with any of our family members did he fly anywhere.
He flew with one of your companies then.
What do you mean, the company?
Mosebenzi Zwane, it was a story in the Financial Mail, I’m sure you saw it. He went with…He went to Switzerland.
To help your firm negotiate with Glencore?
No, you see let me again reply to you on this. Zwane was not with anybody of our company or with any family member not did he fly to Switzerland. If his spokesperson is confirming that he was flying with us then he is lying.
You’ve said, several times during this interview, that your relationship with President Jacob Zuma is just a social relationship. I have to ask you to explain the Waterkloof Air Force Base. No one has managed to use a South African air force base in the way you did. Landing guests for a wedding at a military base. If someone else tried it, they’ll probably be shot down. You suffered no significant consequence. No one in your family was fined or put in jail, or even made any kind of court appearance. Nothing happened to you. How do you explain that, if it wasn’t for your relationship with President Jacob Zuma or someone else in the ANC?
Stephen, I can give you a reply in two different ways. It’s a very complex matter. In effect, it’s been asked so many times to us, so let me start with this thing. All procedures had been followed at that time and you know that, as a journalist. You are the most knowledgeable if I believe so in this kind of stuff. No aircraft can land without permission and with 240 or something guests, we cannot land anywhere. Forget about landing. We cannot come in the airspace. If this aircraft came without permission or without anything, it can be shot in the air itself. Forget anybody else. Even this aircraft. If any aircraft comes with no permission, how can anybody shoot this aircraft? Nobody. Even if it’s verbal permission coming from anybody or who you’re calling that it was the President or something. It cannot be… Nobody would hold it. They would shoot this aircraft, so I believe that all the processes were followed, at that time. It had nothing to do with the President, this thing. On record, I’m telling you if there is one person who can say that we say it’s the President or the president did anything, then bring him to us. It had nothing to do with the President. The whole process had been followed at that time. If we knew that this was really going to be that much of a thing, we would never have done that.
So, there was a story in the Financial Times yesterday, I’m sure you know the British Financial Times.
It said the Department of Mineral Resources had, and I’ll quote, “Used the threat of regulatory action under South Africa’s mining laws to influence Glencore.” This is the Financial Times. This is not a South African publication that may be competing with the New Age or anything like that. It is saying the Department was putting Glencore under pressure so that you can get the price you wanted. Why would the Department do that, if it wasn’t a benefit to you, your family, or your companies?
No, thank you very much but Steven, are you not asking this question to the wrong person? The Department has to give a reply to that if the Department is doing this. We had nothing to do with this thing. Let me say one more thing I’m not defending the Department and I’m not defending anybody else. If Government or a Government Department has to put pressure on Glencore, they should put pressure on Glencore to supply to Eskom at the same price for the next year, so if they are not listening to this pressure, then how are they going to listen to any other pressure?
Duduzane Zuma, the President’s son.
He’s involved with the same deal, isn’t he?
You see, the company that did this deal, Tegeta Exploration and Resources. Duduzane is almost the biggest shareholder, I think . I’m not 100% sure but I think that he’s one of the biggest shareholders. This company is an empowerment company, it’s a 50.1% or 50 plus 1. It’s an empowerment company, so whether it’s Duduzane or other black shareholders they are controlling this company.
How many companies are members of your family and Duduzane Zuma directors of? How many companies, (members of your family) and he on the same board?
You see, I’m not sure.
No, that’s fine. Bloomberg, the news agency people, they say it’s at least 11.
He’s a director, I doubt that. Sorry, I doubt that but off-hand, I cannot say that…
But he’s at least a director of four…
He’s an acting member of this business. He’s acting. He’s not a politician. We have to talk about this. We are all saying he’s the son of President Zuma but I want to be real with you, on many of these things. This young boy, since the beginning, and he worked even 16 to 18 hours daily. He went himself to all the mines and all the places. He didn’t sit in an air-conditioned room and just count money or that. He really earned his hard-earned money, he did that. I believe so, but I’m not 100% sure. Even I haven’t seen him spending one night with his father in his house. He’s an independent man. He’s an independent businessman. He does his own business by his own rights.
Do you believe that he would have been as successful in business without you?
I certainly believe this. He has a talent. He has a passion to work, so I don’t think that. He had an opportunity, of course, but if you have the passion and a hard-working nature, and you have talent and you get the opportunity – you will be successful. There is no question that he won’t get success. One more thing that I want to mention, Stephen, is that he,himself decided that he will not do an empowerment deal, or so-called black empowerment deal. He would not participate in that directly. He will do his business now and he will do only the business and focus on this thing, so he can create for so many others, empowering people also. All the time he’s doing this thing, so I don’t have any doubt that if it was not with us, he may not be as successful as he is at this moment.
With your businesses, your group, would they have been as successful without him, as the President’s son? Would there be a difference in the way you are now?
Do you want to hear the real answer?
Let me tell you that we might be having it better if Duduzane was not with us. We might be doing much better. We’ve now been targeted because of these reasons. We are not getting a benefit from this. We are, in effect, in a really tough environment.
Last week in Parliament, President Jacob Zuma – State of the Nation Address. I don’t know if you were able to see it on TV.
I saw that.
Did you see Julius Malema and the EFF chanting ‘Zupta Must Fall?’ Julius Malema, the EFF – how did you feel when you saw that, ‘Zupta Must Fall?’ How did you feel when you saw that?
Now, I’ll say this again. There is nothing else that we are worried about this thing. We are much more worried about our four-and-a-half to five-thousand employees. Nothing else. My take is only on this that it is political and it’s evident that they’re already saying in the court themselves, that their attack on us is a political attack. We are not politicians. We request to all the people that we are not politicians.
I want to talk a bit about your businesses now, for a moment. Your companies, I would say in the mid-1990’s, probably a very small presence, if one at all, from what I understand. Then most South Africans had probably not heard of the Gupta family, you and your family, until 2009, maybe, which is when President Zuma became the President. How are your companies able to literally explode from there? Now, your companies, there seems to be a lot more of them, they seem to be doing a lot better. What’s the secret to that? How did that happen so quickly?
I’m very happy that you asked that you believe that we came in 1993. In 1993, Mr Atul Gupta came, as a young, 23-year-old boy. He wanted to build his career. He loved South Africa and he stayed. He gave up his Indian citizenship. You know, this is very interesting that once you’re taking any other, as an Indian citizen if you take any other countries citizenship you have to give up your Indian citizenship.
So, it’s a big thing for someone from India?
Yes, and it’s very difficult to reclaim that, so that means that he’s only South African. In 2000, the whole family shifted here and most of them have given… All of them have given up their Indian citizenship, except me, that has become South African. The only one citizenship they have is South African. Many of the kids are born here, who are now 20 to 22-year-olds, already, so they are proudly South African. I tell you that we started in 1993, and now you’re talking of 2009, and then I don’t want to be on record and say this thing.
No, it might be that our progress was in those years, was much good, from 2000 to 2007, it was our golden period of growth but nobody is interested in us. It is not that… It’s the media who started to look at us and whatever we did they started to mention it. That in 2005 or 2006 we decided that we are not going to be doing the government business. It was around 2006, our board took a decision, Sahara, that we are not going, which is under the pressure of the oil because we were looking to the oil business in 2012 or 2013. That is why there were more issues and more people, publicly they started to come to know us, and our business was very strategical. We didn’t do any business that grew overnight.
Our group takes a very conscious decision what our group companies will do over the next five to ten years, so businesses we took, we learnt and we started and they started to give us fruits in the next five to ten years. Even then, and today also, like we’re talking about Glencore. This was never going to be fruitful in one to two years. The fruit that will come from this company will be after 2018 only when they will come out from this. That is a conscious decision. We are ready to take a three-year loss, after December 2018, so the company and our group is very strategically and constructively going forward. It’s not overnight, these things. That is when you are going to see much, and before nobody was interested. We want to ask, why and what changes came in 2009 that all of a sudden we became the darling of the media? Yes, because maybe we enter in their space, it’s like this. I’m just joking.
No, maybe you’ll have to look at the figures to see if there’s a difference. There’re many ways of doing business. One way of doing business involves people giving each other contracts and getting something in return, it could be another contract. It could be something else. Is that how you do your business? If I had to call it ‘favour-for-favour’ would that be accurate or inaccurate?
No, but tell me where is the contract or what is the meaning of the contract?
My point is that there are different ways of doing business. One of them is that ‘if you do me a favour, I’ll do you a favour.’ Is that how you run your business?
No, but this is what I’m saying, you have to tell me where is that contract? Our business is purely operated by corporate ethics. All corporate governance has been done. All business is run by particular company CEOs and has been handled by one Executive Committee. EXCO will run this business and not by all the brothers or all of our family members. In corporate governance, no business can do it in that way, from what I understand from you to contract and favour. I don’t think that any business does this, nor should they do that. We have a very good corporate governance in our businesses.
We’re coming to the end of this now, I think. At a media event, last year, your organisation awarded Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the ‘African of the Year’ title. We all know that the ANC is going to have a leadership election. Do you want Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to be the next President? Would you be comfortable with her being the President of the ANC and of the country?
You see, I’m again saying, I’m not a politician. We are businessmen. We want to do business; we only want to do business. For us, any president is good, who is good for business and economy.
So, would you be more comfortable with Cyril Ramahosa?
Anybody, we’d be much happier with anybody who will promote the business. We are the businessmen here. We need the growth of the country. We want to create more jobs in this country, which is over target all the time. Our company is even looking over the next 10-year target, what I heard in my quarterly conference that our group wants to employ, in the next 10-years, a minimum of 50 thousand people, so I’m happy to look at who is interested in this. We support South Africa and the economy of South Africa.
We all know that the country is very worried about this slowing economy. You say your group is aiming to employ 50 thousand people. Are you confident you’ll manage that? It will be huge for the economy if you do.
See, this is very interesting. I must thank again our EXCO and our group. They have a different view for the economy of South Africa. They have very, different feelings because they all come from the grass-root level. They didn’t land with a parachute in these positions. They did not come here with huge backgrounds. They come from the grass-roots, they all are, so they have a different view. They are saying that the problem in this country is that we don’t have enough investment and reinvestment. That’s our biggest thing. Our group, we said in the beginning, we did not take any money or profit out of the country. We were reinvesting in this thing, so if we make more profit, we will be reinvested in this thing and if every group decided to reinvest in this country and create more jobs, more opportunities, and to love South Africa. Then this country’s economy… They have big resources. They have big natural resources and wonderful people, who can make a difference, so we have to change the mindset of the business, and that is why it is the mindset of our EXCO. That they say ‘no they will reinvest in this country and they can grow the business much faster,’ compared to the whole country’s economy. That is their plan to grow more jobs, more opportunities, and more business.
Mr Gupta, I think we’re at the end of our time. Thank you very much.
No, thank you very much, Stephen, thank you very much to you.