'Gupta ministers' in secret trips to Dubai

10 April 2016 - 02:17 By THANDUXOLO JIKA and QAANITAH HUNTER

Two ministers linked to the controversial Gupta family have raised eyebrows by making mystery trips to Dubai last year - at the same time that the family were in the city.

The hush-hush visits have stoked speculation that the Gupta family are eyeing closer ties with Dubai after South African banks snubbed their businesses and shut their accounts in spite of their links to the highest levels of government, including to President Jacob Zuma and his son Duduzane.

The Sunday Times can reveal that Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister David van Rooyen travelled to Dubai on December 20, less than two weeks after his ill-fated appointment as finance minister, a post he held for four days.

He claimed this week that his was a "private visit".

Van Rooyen's counterpart at the Department of Mineral Resources, Mosebenzi Zwane, whom the Guptas are said to have had a hand in appointing, is said to have stood up embassy officials when travelling via Dubai from Zurich in December.

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Jacob Zuma's last-minute addition of a trip to Dubai during his state visit to Saudi Arabia last month has only added to the speculation.

The Guptas on Friday made a desperate plea for help to, among others, Zwane and Zuma, after the closure of their accounts by two big banks, Absa and FNB. They were also put on notice by a third, believed to be Nedbank, that it would cease doing business with them in June.

The banks' move prompted Atul and Varun Gupta and Duduzane Zuma to quit the board of the family's Oakbay Investments this week. This followed auditing firm KPMG and stock exchange sponsor Sasfin also cutting ties with the Gupta-owned company.

In December, Van Rooyen travelled on an Emirates flight to Dubai, returning to South Africa the next day. Questioned about the trip, he said it was a personal trip that had been planned months before his shock appointment as finance minister.

"With this period being a quiet period at the ministry, I saw no reason to cancel my private trip," said Van Rooyen. The Department of International Relations confirmed that its office in Dubai had no record of Van Rooyen "visiting or transiting" that country.

At the time the Guptas were also in Dubai.

It has been widely claimed that Van Rooyen's appointment as finance minister was influenced by the Guptas, with the intention to secure uranium contracts for their nuclear plants. After being appointed, Van Rooyen arrived at the National Treasury with two advisers said to be linked to the Guptas, Mohamed Bobat and Ian Whitley. The two moved with him to his new portfolio.

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Zwane, whose political adviser, Malcolm Mabaso, is a former business partner of Salim Essa, a business partner of the Guptas, transited through Dubai on November 30.

He was en route to Zurich, where he helped facilitate the sale of the Optimum coal mine in Mpumalanga to a company owned by the Guptas and Duduzane Zuma.

The mine, a major Eskom coal supplier, had been owned by the Switzerland-based Glencore group.

A Bombardier plane, ZS OAK, which is owned by the Guptas, was in Zurich at the same time. Zwane   and the Gupta delegation left Zurich, separately, on the same day, December 2, and headed for Dubai.

The Sunday Times has also learnt that, after being received at the airport by South African diplomats as per protocol, Zwane refused further assistance from the embassy and was not accompanied by ambassador Claudinah Ramosepele - as is the norm when a minister is on a working visit in a foreign country.

"It was very strange that the minister didn't want to be accompanied by our officials," said a senior government official.

The source also said the Department of International Relations had received reports from the South African embassy in Dubai indicating that Zwane had failed to meet its officials at the airport as expected.

Meanwhile, President Zuma, who was scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia last month, added a trip to Dubai at the last minute.

Zuma's spokesman Bongani Majola said the trip had always been planned. However, the Sunday Times has learnt from sources close to the Presidency that the Dubai stopover was indeed added at the last minute.

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The trip prompted speculation from the EFF, among others. EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu said it appeared cabinet ministers were taking their instructions from the Gupta family in Dubai.

The secret visits by the ministers come amid widespread speculation that the Guptas are scaling back in South Africa and moving their wealth to Dubai, where they intend settling.

Shivambu said the party was sticking to its claim that the Guptas had moved R6-billion to Dubai.

Yesterday afternoon, outside the Guptas' compound in Saxonwold, Johannesburg, casually dressed bodyguards tossed around a rugby ball. There was no sign of their employers.

A neighbour said she had last heard the Guptas' youngest son's Lamborghini roaring down the street three days ago. "I know the sound because we hear it all the time, but it's been quiet now," the neighbour said.

She said she was surprised at the bodyguards' relaxed attitude. One of the burly security guards replied: "We're all still here." Curious drivers stopped outside the compound to inquire if indeed the Guptas had left.

Neither the Gupta family nor Zwane responded to requests for comment yesterday.

jikat@sundaytimes.co.za, hunterq@sundaytimes.co.za

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