Gigaba’s office instructed me to fast-track Gupta visas‚ official says
The instruction to fast-track the Guptas' and their associates' visas came from Home Affairs minister Malusi Gigaba's office early in 2015‚ according to a senior departmental official.
Major Kobese‚ a former director in the department’s foreign office responsible for coordination and support‚ told stunned MPs at the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the early naturalisation of Gupta family members that he received a call from Gigaba's chief of staff early in 2015 asking him to assist Gupta associate Ashu Chawla.
The leaked Gupta emails showed that Chawla‚ the chief operating officer of the Gupta-controlled Sahara Computers‚ used Kobese as his connection at the home affairs department to secure preferential treatment on the processing of visas for the Guptas and their associates in India. There were also emails that Chawla wrote to Kobese demanding that visas be issued on the same day.
“Me knowing Mr Chawla didn't just arise from the sky or drop from the sky‚” Kobese told MPs on Tuesday.
He explained that he received a call from a Thami Msomi‚ Gigaba's chief of staff‚ who said: “There is this Mr Chawla who is the [COO] of Sahara and at Sahara they have got problems with visas in embassies and that they are taking longer for missions to finalise the visas and that is going to impact on the movement of the business that we are inviting.”
Kobese said Msomi asked him to ensure that he was able to assist when it became necessary to fast-track those applicants.
It was normal practice for people who were frustrated with visa delays to inquire at the minister's office and the office would interact with the department to assist the client. It was also common for staff in the minister's office to speak directly to officials‚ instead of going through the director-general‚ who was the administrative head of the department‚ he said.
Kobese revealed there were no existing Gupta applications at the time he received the call‚ but it was for future reference.
“At the time I got a call‚ it's not that there were applications that were stuck‚ it was to say‚ ‘There is this person who experiences problems. This person is going to liaise with you. Can you ensure that in future where there are problems‚ you are able to assist?’” he said.
He said Msomi had told him that Sahara was bringing lots of people who were coming to the country for business purposes‚ including the amount of the investment it was bringing to the country and the projects they were involved in.
“Then the call says because of the amount of investments that they are bringing in the country‚ at times they experience problems with the facilitation officers in missions because missions take longer to process applications.
“So the request was to ensure wherein I get enquiries from Sahara for the fast tracking I am able to assist because all the people they are bringing in are credible people. Those are business people.”
Kobese received about eight such emails from Chawla requesting assistance‚ he revealed. The requests were not about meeting visa requirements but it was always about fast tracking.
Kobese said it was not new for Gigaba's chief of staff to call him for assistance‚ saying he had done it with other companies.
Asked to give examples of such companies, he said the that during that period the company was experiencing power outages and Eskom was struggling to get technicians to come because it was taking longer to process visas.
MPs didn't seem to buy it‚ saying the circumstances were extraordinary.
Last month‚ the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) told the inquiry that Kobese would reprimand his subordinates to act swiftly whenever Chawla requested assistance.
Kobese denied this on Tuesday. He said he never asked his juniors to act outside the ambit of the law and that he himself had never received an instruction to turn a blind eye. He would only ask them to assist because the applicants were not “ordinary” but business people who were coming to the country bringing investments.
Home affairs portfolio committee chairperson Hlomane Chauke noted that Chawla's influence seemed to come from “the highest office” in the department.
“A chief of staff is someone who holds the fort for the minister; he gives‚ he defends and he advises in that space and now he is giving instructions that when these people come to you‚ you must perform. You have to make sure that everybody in the line of your command performs. And all these applications come from India and they don't come from London or New York‚” said Chauke.
Msomi told TimesLIVE that‚ as people in the ministry‚ they received a number of queries from the members of the public which they would forward to relevant units.
“In this case the relevant unit was headed by Mr Kobese in an acting capacity. So I forwarded the requests for the approval of certain visas to him.”
Msomi denied instructing Kobese to fast-track the visas‚ saying it was not in his nature to instruct or prescribe to colleagues how they should do their work.
“The reason I don’t instruct or prescribe is that colleagues in the department are competent and qualified in the areas of their deployment and Mr Kobese belongs to that category of colleagues. Accordingly‚ I wouldn’t have done to him what I don’t do to other colleagues when forwarding queries to them‚” he said.
The inquiry was still expected to hear from Gigaba on Tuesday evening.