Guptas launch urgent court bid to keep Bank of Baroda in SA

28 February 2018 - 07:58
By Kyle Cowan
A man walks past the Bank of Baroda headquarters in Mumbai, India, May 3, 2016.
Image: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui/File Photo A man walks past the Bank of Baroda headquarters in Mumbai, India, May 3, 2016.

Twenty companies belonging to the beleaguered Gupta family have launched an urgent court application in an attempt to prevent the Bank of Baroda from shutting its South African operations.

The bank announced in January that it planned to close its branches in the country following a decision by its parent company in India to downscale global operations.

On February 16‚ attorneys on behalf of the Gupta companies filed an application for an urgent interdict in the High Court in Pretoria‚ saying that if Baroda followed through on plans to pull out of the country‚ the bank would be in contravention of a judgment delivered by Judge Tati Makgoka in the Pretoria High Court in October. Makgoka ordered Baroda to continue providing banking services to the Gupta family companies in order to shield about 7‚000 staff they employ.

The Gupta application also seeks to have the court declare that the CEO of Baroda‚ Manoj Jha‚ would be in contempt of court if Baroda shut down operations in South Africa and that Jha should be given three days to say why he should not be imprisoned for 30 days.

The matter is set down to be heard in the Pretoria High Court on Thursday.

The Guptas also want a letter addressed to the companies by Baroda on February 12 to be accepted as evidence that Baroda was in contempt of Makgoka’s order and argue that Baroda intentionally frustrated and delayed several payments. These include a $223‚000 (R2.6-million) payment to New York-based law firm Skadden Arps‚ a R29-million payment to the Canadian EDC – the delay of which resulted in the Guptas’ private jet ZS-OAK being grounded at Lanseria airport – as well as money to pay agents responsible for disbursing salaries to the staff of Gupta-owned companies‚ including its Optimum‚ Koornfontein and Shiva mines.

Workers at Optimum went on strike last week over salaries but TimesLIVE has learned from employees of the mine that they were paid on Tuesday. Some 600 workers from Koornfontein also went on strike on Monday and Tuesday‚ but have since been paid. It is unclear if workers at Shiva Uranium will be paid.

The founding affidavit in the latest bid by the Gupta companies is deposed to by Oakbay Investments director Ronica Ragavan.

Ragavan states that Makgoka ordered in October last year‚ among other stipulations‚ that the bank could not “in any way limit the manner in which the banking accounts are operated by the applicants so as to ensure that the applicants are permitted to operate the banking accounts in the same manner as they did immediately prior to the notices of termination dated 6 July 2017.”

She also claims that Baroda had deliberately created unnecessary delays in processing payments requested by Gupta company officials.

But Baroda is disputing Ragavan’s interpretation of the October judgment‚ saying the order did not prevent it from closing down operations and that the Guptas had sufficient warning over the closure of its accounts.

In Jha’s answering affidavit he reveals that Nedbank‚ Baroda’s sponsor bank‚ had at the end of January given notice of its intent to terminate its relationship with Baroda within three months. That means that as of 1 April‚ Baroda will not have banking facilities with Nedbank on which it relies to provide banking services to its own clients.

Jha said Baroda would therefore not be able to accept any deposits into Baroda accounts from 1 March‚ to allow the bank to wind down its affairs before the termination of its agreement with Nedbank.

Jha also denied that the bank had intentionally frustrated the Gupta businesses‚ saying it was merely complying with increased due diligence measures “demanded by the South African Reserve Bank”.

More than R100-million contained in various accounts belonging to the Gupta family‚ their associates and companies frozen by the Asset Forfeiture Unit in relation to the Estina dairy farm would be placed in a trust with Standard Bank‚ Jha explained.

Other funds‚ including the R2-billion Optimum and Koornfontein rehabilitation funds‚ frozen by a court order obtained by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse‚ as well as unclaimed deposits by other clients‚ would also be placed in the trust account‚ Jha said in his answering affidavit.

This application is the third additional court action launched by the Gupta companies on top of their main application‚ which seeks to have the court invalidate Baroda’s reasons for wanting to terminate the accounts of the Guptas and their businesses.