Just before 8am on Friday October 10 2008 a private jet departed from Lanseria Airport near Johannesburg on its way to Equatorial Guinea.
Among the passengers on board were ANC president Jacob Zuma, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and SACP leader Blade Nzimande.
Zuma had been invited to Independence Day celebrations by notorious West African dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema and decided to take his closest confidants along.
“It was just before the elections in May 2009. We saw this as an opportunity as alliance leaders to discuss constituting the new cabinet and a new government,” recalls Vavi.
They were given the royal treatment when they landed in Malabo, the steaming capital of Equatorial Guinea, which lies about 40km off the coast of Cameroon.
“After we landed we were whisked to the presidential palace and allocated our rooms. It was first-class treatment.”
However, Nzimande and Vavi had no opportunity to sit down with Zuma for the next four days.
“He was in perpetual discussions with Obiang. I don’t know what they discussed. All I know is that we were kept on the sidelines.”
The Independence Day celebrations took up most of Sunday “so it was understandable we didn’t get time to talk then”.
By the fourth day Vavi and Nzimande’s patience with Zuma and their planned “strategic discussion” on the future of South Africa was wearing thin.
“We were told this was the day,” he says. “We were sitting on the veranda of the palace twiddling our fingers, getting bored and irritated, constantly waiting for an opportunity for a discussion with Zuma, who was too busy having meetings with Obiang.”
At that moment Zuma’s son Duduzane and “the young Gupta”, Rajesh, came waltzing in.
“They had just come from Angola and the Central African Republic. They told us they were doing business. We didn’t ask them what business and with who.
“From there they went straight into the meeting with Jacob Zuma and Obiang. We realised we would not get another opportunity to talk to the president.”
Nzimande said he recalled the trip but was “not in a position to talk about the travels of president Zuma’s son, Duduzane”.
“I urge the Sunday Times to talk to him about his travels.”
Vavi says the encounter made him feel decidedly uncomfortable.
“It looked bad — more so if you consider who the host was,” he says.
Obiang is a notoriously brutal dictator who used the oil boom to enrich himself and his family at the expense of his small impoverished nation that he rules with an iron fist.
I thought: ‘Wow, these guys must have power. It’s as if you are travelling with the president’
His son Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, one of Equatorial Guinea’s vice-presidents, faces charges of corruption, embezzlement and money laundering in France and the US.
Authorities have seized a $30-million villa, a Ferrari and Michael Jackson memorabilia in Malibu, California, a six-storey mansion in Paris thought to be worth $124-million and nine luxury cars, including a Porsche, a Bugatti and a Maserati worth $4.1-million.
He also abandoned a bungalow he bought in Clifton, Cape Town, for R24-million.
“It was only when we got to Equatorial Guinea that I Googled him and realised who he was,” says Vavi.
Vavi recalls another occasion that gave him some inkling of the kind of power wielded by the Gupta family.
He’d just watched the nail-biting Soccer World Cup semifinal that pitted Germany against Spain at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on July 7 2010.
As a member of the local organising committee, Vavi and his wife had flown down from Johannesburg in a private jet. But when he wanted to fly back that night for an urgent meeting he found out that the other LOC members had all planned to stay in Durban.
He asked fellow LOC member Essop Pahad, who was minister in the presidency at the time, for help. Pahad returned with Ajay Gupta and said: “Here’s the man who can help you.”
Pahad, whose magazine The Thinker was funded by the Guptas, declined to comment about the incident this week: “I’m not willing to do any interviews about these issues,” he said.
Next Vavi and his wife found themselves tearing through the streets of Durban to King Shaka Airport in a blue light cavalcade with the Guptas.
“They were blocking the traffic and robots, sirens blaring. We were there in no time.”
At the airport they were whisked through the VIP section. “The gates just opened for us.”
The Gupta jet landed at Lanseria Airport. As Vavi and his wife drove off into the night they saw a blue light brigade escort the Gupta cavalcade to Saxonwold.
“I thought: ‘Wow, these guys must have power. It’s as if you are travelling with the president’.”
Zuma’s spokesman, Bongani Majola, referred queries to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, which declined to comment as the president had not been on state business.
Messages requesting comment and left over several days with Duduzane Zuma and the Gupta family through their spokesmen, Gary Naidoo and Ajay Gupta, and their Oakbay corporate communications e-mail address remain unanswered.