Oppenheimers claim Guptas want in on luxury OR Tambo international airport terminal

13 November 2016 - 02:03 By STEPHAN HOFSTATTER
The Gupta family has been caught up in a new controversy.
The Gupta family has been caught up in a new controversy.
Image: MARTIN RHODES

Two of South Africa's wealthiest families are going head to head in a battle over who will control a seven-star international airport terminal in Johannesburg reserved for the ultra-rich and famous.

The Oppenheimers claimed in court papers served on Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba this week that the Guptas tried to use their influence over Denel to hijack the project.

The papers detail how two former Gupta pilots claimed the family had allegedly tried to wrest control of the terminal from the Oppenheimers.

Fireblade, the Oppenheimer family's aviation company, built the terminal on premises leased from Denel. It opened for domestic flights in 2014, but has not yet been granted international rights.

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It boasts VIP suites, day bedrooms, boardrooms, a bistro serving organic produce grown on the premises, walls adorned with original art works for sale from the Everard Read Gallery, a massage spa and a state-of-the-art medical facility.

The Oppenheimers intended to serve international flights, which can make the terminal profitable.

They want local and foreign dignitaries, as well as celebrities, to land and be whisked through immigration and customs in minutes, without the hassle of going through OR Tambo International Airport, while their jets are being parked in Fireblade's hangars.

The Oppenheimers envisaged President Jacob Zuma and his cabinet, too, using the terminal.

Instead, Fireblade is haemorrhaging money.

It pays Denel R1.4-million a month in rent and salaries. Losses up to the end of July amounted to R163-million.

Denel is linked to the Guptas through its partnership with VR Laser Asia, which is owned by Gupta associate Salim Essa.

Its parent company in South Africa, steel-cutting company VR Laser, is owned by the president's son Duduzane and the Guptas.

"The endless delays have turned it into a loss-making enterprise," said a source close to the process.

"The Oppenheimers will be forced to sell and the Guptas will come out of the woodwork as buyers."

The Guptas deny the claims.

"These allegations will not go unchallenged as it has become custom to accuse the Gupta family of wrongdoing when one was unsuccessful in any venture," said Gert van der Merwe, the family's lawyer.

block_quotes_start They do not have to worry as Fireblade will never get international status                                              block_quotes_end

Van der Merwe said the family would issue a response once they had studied the papers.

Documents attached to the court papers served on Gigaba show that the Oppenheimers, who have made much of their fortune in diamond mining, have obtained approval for their international terminal from 27 state entities.

These include Denel, the Airports Company South Africa, the South African Revenue Service, the Transport Department, the Finance Ministry, the police, the Gauteng department of home affairs and the State Security Agency.

Despite this, the terminal's international arrivals and departure desks, which were supposed to be manned by SARS and home affairs officials, stand empty, awaiting approval from Gigaba, who must declare it a new port of entry.

The former Gupta pilots, who do not want their identities revealed, claim the family induced Denel to block Gigaba's approval because they wanted a piece of the action themselves.

The former Gupta pilots' statements are contained in an affidavit deposed by Fireblade director Robbie Irons. Supporting documents include e-mails and a WhatsApp message.

Irons said the first Gupta pilot had come to see him in November 2015 bearing a message he said he had been asked to relay by Tony (Rajesh) Gupta.

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The pilot said he had flown Tony, Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza and Duduzane from Moscow to Johannesburg on November 14 2015 in the family's Bombardier Global 6,000.

The pilot said Tony had asked him to tell Irons it would be "difficult" for Fireblade to operate the airport terminal because the Oppenheimers had "the wrong black economic empowerment partner".

If Fireblade switched to an "appropriate" BEE partner, "by which pilot 1 was made to understand an entity associated with the Gupta family, Mr Gupta could 'guarantee' the Fireblade application would receive ministerial approval 'within three days and Fireblade's problems would go away'".

In late March this year the same pilot sent Irons a WhatsApp message describing what another Gupta pilot had related - that, during a flight on the Guptas' Cessna Citation to India for Denel's business partner company VR Laser, he had overheard Denel acting CEO Zwelakhe Ntshepe tell Ajay Gupta's son, Kamal Gupta, that "they do not have to worry as Fireblade will never get international status".

Both pilots were approached by Fireblade's lawyers to make sworn statements but refused because of concerns for their safety. However, the first pilot's statement was made in the presence of the Oppenheimer family's lawyer.

Department of Home Affairs spokesman Mayihlome Tshwete said the case was "a conflict between Denel, as the landlord, and Fireblade. Once the court resolves that, we will go back to our engagement with Denel and Fireblade. Us declaring a port of entry now is putting the carriage before the horse."

Denel spokeswoman Vuyelwa Qinga denied Ntshepe had "ever been pressured by anyone, including the Gupta family, to oppose Fireblade. All that's required is that Fireblade, as a tenant of Denel, must comply with national security legislation."

stephanh@sundaytimes.co.za

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