South Africa ‘hijacked’ by Indian businessmen brothers

The posters are fading now, but their hate-filled message burns as fiercely as ever. Brandished during a mass protest against South Africa’s corrupt President a few months ago, and pinned up in black shanty towns across the country, they bear the photograph of a smiling young Englishwoman whose handsome features are framed by an expensive, blonde hairstyle.

‘More corruption, more misery, more poverty, more crime. Thank you Victoria Geoghegan,’ reads the caption on one of the posters.

Cartoons published in leading newspapers are equally inflammatory. One depicts Miss Geoghegan, 34 — who was educated privately in Somerset and attended Manchester University’s business school before landing a plum job at Britain’s once-leading PR firm, Bell Pottinger — as a horned and winged she-devil, polluting people’s minds with racial slurs, toxic tweets and lies.

So what has this talented high-flyer done that she has been branded — as one leading Johannesburg journalist put it to me this week — ‘the most detested woman in South Africa’?

The answer is she played a part in a racially-charged political corruption scandal — one that exposes the moral bankruptcy of a cabal of black politicians pretending to carry the torch for Nelson Mandela’s legacy for a fair and free society, with the grasping President Jacob Zuma at the centre of the storm.

The influence of three Indian businessmen brothers  — Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta — is said to have become so all-pervasive in South African government circles that according to critics, they have effectively ‘hijacked’ the country. Above, Atul (right) with President Zuma

It is a scandal that is not only tearing the Rainbow Nation apart, but has major repercussions for global businesses, sucking in a raft of renowned international companies such as Bell Pottinger, London accountants KPMG, and, most recently, the leading business consultancy McKinsey.

And unlikely as it may seem, the demure Miss Geoghegan (who was this week taking refuge at her parents’ West Country home) is being cast, in the words of one South African business news website, as its ‘evil mastermind’.

Her demise dates back to January 2016, when she was among a Bell Pottinger delegation to South Africa, led by the ad agency’s famed founder, Lord Tim Bell, the man credited with shaping Margaret Thatcher’s image and helping her to three general election victories.

They’d been invited to meet three Indian brothers who had attained enormous wealth and power, allegedly by dint of their corrupt friendship with Zuma and his family.

The influence of these businessmen — Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta — is said to have become so all-pervasive in government circles that according to critics, including the nation’s Public Protector (who investigates government failings and compiled a damning report on their activities called ‘State of Capture’) they have effectively ‘hijacked’ the country.

'Genius' Ajay Gupta

Rajesh Gupta

The brothers had attained enormous wealth and power, allegedly by dint of their corrupt friendship with Zuma and his family. Pictured, ‘genius’ Ajay (left) and Rajesh

It was in 2009 that this highly controversial trio first came to the attention of MI6, when a signal was relayed to the intelligence service’s London HQ. South African intelligence officers were informing them that one of the country’s largest uranium mines was about to be sold to a company operated by three Indian brothers.

New players in this sensitive industry — crucial to the production of nuclear weapons — they had become inordinately rich since arriving in South Africa 15 years earlier. According to a new book, The Republic Of Gupta, brilliantly researched by the South African investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh, the alert was also sent to the CIA.

British and American security chiefs then urged their counterparts in Pretoria to find out more about the brothers and their mushrooming business enterprises.

This covert surveillance operation would shed the first shafts of daylight on a story which is now convulsing South Africa.

For it transpired that the uranium mine purchase was but a microcosm of an audacious plan the brothers had devised to plunder South Africa’s riches.

After insinuating themselves with Jacob Zuma, who became President of South Africa in 2010, and giving jobs to members of his family, they were busily reaping the benefits of their connections and had built a multi-billion Rand empire, with interests ranging from minerals to the media.

It is only during recent weeks, following the leak of more than 200,000 private emails said to be between the Guptas and their associates, that what appears to be the extent of their connections with Zuma has been fully revealed.

For their part, the Guptas say the emails are fake.

The emails suggest that they had, and possibly still have, such a stranglehold on the President and his circle that they could even have ministers who opposed their interests substituted with placemen.

Now, thanks to the fallout from a deeply damaging and racially divisive campaign by Bell Pottinger — who allegedly sought to deflect attention from Zuma’s relationship with the Guptas by blaming the nation’s ills on ‘white monopoly capital’ — the struggle to heal the scars of apartheid has been set back by years.

So what did Bell Pottinger actually do? The PR firm’s brief — for which they were offered £100,000 a month — was to deflect the mounting public disquiet surrounding the Gupta brothers’ dealings with Zuma.

The agency did this, it is claimed, by devising a cynical strategy — underpinned by fake news websites and false Twitter accounts — to blame the government’s failure to help poor blacks not on the corruption and cronyism of its leadership, but on the supposed greed of an elite group of ‘white monopoly’ capitalists.

Talented high flyer Victoria Geoghegan has been branded ¿ as one leading Johannesburg journalist put it to David Jones this week ¿ ¿the most detested woman in South Africa¿

Talented high flyer Victoria Geoghegan has been branded — as one leading Johannesburg journalist put it to David Jones this week — ‘the most detested woman in South Africa’

Among those targeted was a luxury goods billionaire named Johann Rupert, the nation’s fifth wealthiest man, who was smeared as ‘the leading person stealing South Africa’s wealth’.

The richest woman in the country, investment queen Magda Wierzycka — of Polish extraction — was accused of ‘economic terrorism’ and ‘downright racism’.

None of these slurs had any basis in fact. Politicians and journalists who openly opposed the campaign were grotesquely and menacingly hounded by internet trolls. One ANC politician from the ruling party, who refused to back Zuma in a no-confidence vote over his links to the Guptas, found herself wrongly accused of having murdered her husband, years ago, and sleeping around.

Mocked-up pictures of another fierce Gupta critic, Ferial Haffajee, editor-at-large of South Africa’s Huffington Post website, show her bearing her bosom and sitting seductively on the lap of the billionaire Johann Rupert. Eventually, these damaging tactics led to mass protests such as those which saw posters of Bell Pottinger’s Geoghegan waved in disgust.

Not only has this set back race relations in South Africa, it has seen the meltdown and collapse of the London PR firm.

Today, Victoria Geoghegan has lost her job, and Bell Pottinger has been forced into liquidation. The scandal has also caused immense damage to KPMG, whose entire South African hierarchy were forced to resign this month over their auditing work for the Guptas — which can most charitably be described as laissez-faire.

Now McKinsey, the multi-national business consultant with offices in London, has become the latest to be sucked into the maelstrom. South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has accused it of fraud and collusion in relation to a £54million contract with South Africa’s state energy giant. McKinsey denies the allegations.

With every major bank now refusing to handle Gupta company accounts, the South African public in ferment and allegations emerging by the day, it seems unlikely these companies will be the last to be touched by the fall-out from ‘Guptagate’. All this begs one question. Who are these brothers? Although they like to portray themselves as self-made men who rose from humble beginnings, Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta had an advantageous start.

Their father, Shiv, was a prosperous businessman who sold spices and ran a co-op chain in their home town of Saharanpur, 120 miles north of Delhi. He made sufficient money to fear his children might be kidnapped and employed bodyguards to accompany them daily on their journey to private school.

This might explain their obsession with security: they employ British firm G4S as well as their own ex-military minders, one of whom menacingly warned me away when I called at the family compound, which occupies almost an entire block in the Johannesburg neighbourhood of Saxonwold.

By 1993, Shiv Gupta was looking to expand beyond India, so he sent his middle son, Atul, then 23, to seek fresh openings. After a brief foray to China, he pitched up in South Africa — then emerging from apartheid and ripe with commercial opportunities.

By his own account, he arrived in Johannesburg with £80,000 in cash which he used to open a shoe shop, which soon failed, and a computer assembly business, which fared better. He called it Sahara, perhaps taking the name from his home town or, as critics claim, to piggy-back on the reputation of one of India’s biggest conglomerates, Sahara India Pariwar, which has no connection with the Guptas.

Precisely how and when he and his brothers, who later joined him in South Africa, met the Zumas has never been established. It is believed they began cosying up to prominent politicians by attending functions at the Indian consulate.

However they became friends in 2003 when, with Zuma angling to succeed Thabo Mbeki as South Africa’s president, the brothers employed Zuma’s 19-year-old son, Duduzane, one of the 22 children he is said to have fathered by six wives. They also found a job for his twin sister, Duduzile.

Atul says he employed them purely on merit. He has described Duduzane as ‘disciplined, systematic and organised…a fully-fledged, matured businessman’. Leading journalist Haffajee, who has broken many stories about the Guptas, offers a different view.

She is convinced the brothers, led by the ‘Machiavellian genius’ Ajay, plotted a long-term strategy to tap into the wealth of the nation by befriending South Africa’s likely next leader — and knew Jacob Zuma’s personal circumstances would make him particularly vulnerable to temptation.

‘This wasn’t just incidental,’ she told me this week. ‘The Guptas worked out that there would be this vast amount of money washing around (for state projects and government tenders) and they recognized Zuma’s need to provide security for his large family.’

Whatever the truth, the contracts soon began to gravitate towards the Guptas’ firm Sahara Computers, and other companies under their holding company, Oakbay.

One of their earliest coups was to win a contract to supply computers to schools in Gauteng province, part of an initiative to educate children to find jobs in the ‘new economy’. Eyebrows were raised when Sahara Computers beat the likes of Dell and Hewlett-Packard to win the largest share of the multi-million-pound tender —and well they should have been.

Six years later, none of the faulty computers they had supplied had been connected to the internet, and the scheme was eventually scrapped. They also moved into other industries, such as coal mining, engineering, arms manufacturing, real estate and leisure.

Then, as their empire expanded, they decided to become sporting benefactors. Cricket fans were appalled when hallowed grounds such as Newlands were prefixed with ‘Sahara’, and cringed when their Test heroes were paraded through the Guptas’ home town in India wearing orange turbans.

The Springboks rugby team was similarly commercialised for the brothers’ benefit.

But it was after Zuma took office in 2010 that their fortunes went stratospheric. By last year, Atul alone was ranked South Africa’s seventh richest man with a £600million fortune. That was only an estimate based on his Stock Exchange listed assets. He and his brothers are believed to have countless millions more overseas.

The hold the Gupta brothers had on the President came under scrutiny in April 2013, when a radio news reporter was tipped off about strange goings-on at the Waterkloof air force base, near Pretoria. The base is strictly off-limits to all commercial aircraft.

That morning, however, a chartered Indian jet had landed there and its 200 passengers were being greeted by a grinning Atul Gupta.

Relatives and friends of the Guptas were arriving for the wedding of their niece. It was reported that immigration officials were bussed in to stamp passports, although the normal customs rules were said to have been waived.

The Guptas, meanwhile, said in a statement at the time that they had got permission through the Indian High Commission because the usual Johannesburg airport for charter flights was too small to accommodate the Airbus A330.

The flagrant breach of protocol caused a public outcry but the Guptas faced no action.

The wedding itself was a ludicrously ostentatious, four-day extravaganza at the nearby Sun City resort, attended by Bollywood stars such as Anil Kapoor, star of the film Slumdog Millionaire (though not by President Zuma, who is believed to have stayed away to avoid further flak over the airbase saga).

Among those who accepted an invitation was KPMG’s then South African chief executive Moses Kgosana. In an obsequious thank you message to Atul Gupta, he described it as ‘the event of the millennium’. They are words that have come back to haunt him and, more damagingly, his supposedly upstanding company.

For it recently emerged, via the leaked Gupta emails that the wedding — which cost £2million — was paid for with public money.

KPMG’s auditors wrote off the £2million as a business expense.

KPMG said that no evidence of corruption or illegal action by staff was found. But the firm did admit that its work done for the Guptas ‘fell short of our standards’.

It remains to be seen what will become of Zuma and the Guptas and how this astounding story will end. This week, Guptas’ spokesman Gary Naidoo did not reply to my requests for a response to the various accusations against them.

The smart money says Zuma — already fighting a court battle to stop the reinstatement of 783 unrelated corruption charges dropped just before he became president — will wriggle off the hook, as he has many times before.

The only bank still doing business with the Guptas is India’s Bank Of Baroda, but it says it will foreclose all their company Oakbay accounts by the end of September. The Guptas will then have no banking facilities.

According to experts, this will make it impossible for them to continue trading and the only option will be to sell all their South African businesses. Many believe they could board one of their private jets and relocate to Dubai, where they recently bought the emirate’s most expensive property — a £30million palace decorated according to their glitzy taste.

However it plays out, one thing is certain. The British companies whose reputations have been trashed by this sorry saga — and perhaps others as yet unnamed — must rue the day they took the shilling from the brothers who ‘hijacked’ a country.

Additional reporting: Raymond Joseph