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Who owns South Africa?

16 Jul 2021 at 09:12hrs | Views
FORMER South African President Jacob Zuma did not bring the Guptas to South Africa. His folly was allowing the Guptas to be bigger than the Oppenheimers.

Atul settled in Johannesburg and sold shoes downtown. Then he started a company - Sahara, named after the family hometown - importing computer parts and assembling them for sale.

And by chance, he made a personal connection to the ANC that proved far more consequential.

During a trip home to India, Atul met a South African of Indian origin in New Delhi: Essop Pahad, the right-hand man of Thabo Mbeki, who was then President Nelson Mandela's deputy.

In an interview, Pahad recalled that he had ordered some tailor-made Nehru-style shirts. But he had to return to South Africa before they were ready.

Atul volunteered to pick them up and personally deliver them to Pahad's office in Johannesburg. After that, they ran into each other at functions at the Indian consulate.

"He talked about Ajay a lot," Pahad said. "Then I said: ‘Who is this Ajay of yours?'

When Pahad finally met Ajay, he was immediately impressed. Ajay got the big picture in South Africa, and seemed to understand that there was a place in it for the Guptas.

When Mandela was released from Robben Island in 1990, Anglo American executives visited him at his home in Soweto. Other businessmen followed, to Mandela's delight, according to an authorised biography describing how he stayed at the estates of white tycoons and accepted gifts from them.

Mandela was particularly close to Oppenheimer, who gave him money, said Michael Spicer, a former executive at the company.

But nothing was free.

Oppenheimer put together a team of economic advisers for Mandela called the Brenthurst Group - named after the Oppenheimers' palatial estate in Johannesburg. In meetings, ANC leaders joined the country's top white businessmen to set the nation's post-apartheid economic course, Spicer said.

Soon enough, Mandela, who had supported nationalising the economy, endorsed probusiness policies. Some historians argue that the policies contributed to South Africa's income inequality, and to an economy still based on cheap black labour.

But after becoming president, Mbeki moved to dampen the power of white businesses. He created his own group, which met at his residence each month, Pahad said. It included Cabinet ministers, top businessmen, rising stars in the ANC and an unknown figure: Ajay Gupta.

Ajay said he enjoyed the meetings. Mbeki sometimes even dropped by for lunch.

Only a few years after settling in South Africa, Ajay had forged links to the highest levels of the ANC, thanks to his friendship with Pahad.

Even as the Guptas thrived off their ties to Mbeki's allies, they were reaching out to his arch-rival, Zuma, the number two in the party. The two leaders fought bitterly. So Pahad, Mbeki's right-hand man, was surprised to learn that the Guptas had cultivated ties with the other side.

"They were having some function at their home, and Ajay said to me: ‘Do you mind if we invite Zuma?'" Pahad recalled.

Money was an unspoken dynamic in the battle between Mbeki and Zuma: Who in the ANC had gotten rich since the end of apartheid? And, perhaps more important, who had not?

Mandela and others - including President Cyril Ramaphosa - became wealthy, in part through connections to white business leaders.

During Mbeki's tenure, his allies got their chance, often by directing the course of the country's black economic empowerment policies, which required white businesses to take on black partners.

So when Zuma became president in 2009, it was his faction's turn. But Zuma, plagued by personal and political scandals, was distrusted by the white business establishment. And more than a decade after apartheid, many white businesses felt they had done enough to help - a sentiment that angered people close to Zuma.

The Oppenheimers had sold their shares in Anglo American and De Beers for billions. The heirs to the fortune - Nicky Oppenheimer and his son Jonathan, both passionate aviators - opened an ultra-luxury private terminal at Johannesburg's main airport in 2014, with fine dining and a gallery with art for sale.

But the Oppenheimers couldn't get permission to handle international flights. Despite countless letters and calls to ANC officials, the Oppenheimers were getting nowhere.

Eventually, they sued the government, accusing the Guptas of using their political influence to stall the business.

According to court documents, the Guptas sent a message to the Oppenheimers that they had "the wrong BBE partner" - referring to the black economic empowerment programme. If the Oppenheimers chose a partner endorsed by the Guptas, the documents said, their "problems would go away."

The last straw was another appointment in late 2015, Zuma chose an unknown lawmaker Nhlanhla Nene - considered close to the Guptas - as finance minister.

Alarmed, the business establishment and its ANC allies struck back, forcing Zuma to remove the minister after only four days.

Within weeks, a major South African bank cut ties with the Gupta family. The country's other big banks followed.

This article first appeared on New York Times

Source - New York Times
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