A panda bear emoji was part of the unravelling of a story that shook the South African state to its core.
Independent investigative unit amaBhungane had been writing about the Gupta brothers and their questionable links to President Jacob Zuma, his family and his political circle since March 2010, when they produced a spread in the Mail & Guardian newspaper headlined ‘Zuma Inc’. ‘People starting tell us of the Guptas giving instructions to cabinet ministers, and strange deals. It was just allegations and rumours at that stage, but it told us this was something to focus on,’ says amaBhungane’s Stefaans Brümmer. They began to put resources into a comprehensive study of the three Gupta brothers, systematically combing through company, property and other records.
Brümmer recalls his colleague Drew Forrest asking repeatedly at weekly news conferences, ‘When are we going to get a story?’ Brümmer told him what investigative reporters are always telling their editors: this is the kind of work you do to be ready for when the story comes. This attitude may explain why they chose the name amaBhungane, the isiZulu word for a dung beetle, an insect that painstakingly gathers cow dung in which to lay its eggs. But this slowly, slowly approach was also to cost them when it came to breaking the big story.
The story that brought the Guptas into the national spotlight was in 2013 when Eyewitness News reported that a Gupta-chartered plane bringing guests to their daughter’s lavish wedding had landed at Waterkloof air force base and guests were given police escorts to Sun City. It was a relatively minor abuse of state resources, but there was an outburst of public outrage.
Other stories followed, such as an amaBhungane story on a state farming venture in Vrede, in the Free State province, where it later emerged that the Guptas had siphoned off huge funds to pay for the wedding; and of other money laundering ventures. AmaBhungane did a number of stories around money laundering and the Gupta’s malign influence at major state-owned enterprises (SOEs) like Eskom and Transnet. ‘We started proving quite convincingly that their modus operandi was to deploy people to state-owned companies and government positions, and then use their connectivity with the presidency and deployees to control state contracts. So while they did apparently very little business with the state, they were the gatekeepers, the toll-keepers, of SOE contracts and they would extract these tolls outside of their known companies, often off-shore.’
The story became red-hot in 2016/17 with the firing of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, who was replaced by one of the Guptas’ close allies, and the statement by Deputy Finance Minister Ncebisi Jonas that the Guptas had offered him a R600 million bribe and the finance minister’s job if he worked with them.
Brümmer will not identify the sources that gave them the hard drive of tens of thousands of Gupta emails other than to say it was more than one person who ‘accidentally-ish’ came into possession of the information and decided it had to come out. A go-between contacted Branko Brkic, who runs the influential news and opinion website, The Daily Maverick.
Brkic texted his chief executive, Styli Charamlambous: ‘We have a game changer.’
Brkic knew that his small team could not handle this massive dump of information. ‘I immediately thought, this is bigger than Daily Maverick, this had to be industry-wide.’ He called Brümmer, they met over coffee and he told Brümmer about the email tranche that he had not even seen yet. It was midday, but Brümmer ordered a vodka. He is ambivalent about whether the drink was celebratory or needed to calm his nerves, because it was immediately clear to them that this was a risky story. ‘We knew we had something that would go to the heart of the Gupta empire. This would end plausible deniability. This was not individual stories, but the whole thing laid out clearly. But we did not know what the reaction would be. We knew that once we started with this story, we were in uncharted territory. We had to be extremely careful, for ourselves and for everyone involved.’ They hammered out a cooperation agreement between their two operations.
Brkic was given a USB drive containing a small sample of the emails and dropped it off with Brümmer after midnight in a small town where he was taking a weekend off. Brümmer sat up all night assessing the material and at first light sent Brkic his signal that the emails looked authentic: a smiley face. While Brümmer and his team started digging deep into the material, Brkic started organising for them and their sources to leave the country with the material. ‘We always wanted to do this properly and thoroughly. We had to look after the sources, and we wanted to prepare for a timed release – to dripfeed the stories so that we could prepare them properly and the public could absorb them. We had to be safe and ready, so that they could not stop us once we started.’ They raised money, hired people and bought a new set of laptops that were kept off their books and off the internet for security reasons. When they needed software, they went to internet cafés, opened bogus accounts and downloaded. They did not discuss the matter anywhere near a phone and stuck to face-to-face meetings in safe places. This is where the panda bear came in.
When Brümmer and Brkic needed to speak, they would slip a panda bear emoji into a message and meet a short while later in a park. ‘We would leave our phones behind and walk through the woods.They chose Ireland as the place to go to because there were no visa requirements for South Africans. Members of the team would travel separately, so as not to draw attention. Brkic was on his way to Ireland when a Sunday Times tweet alerted them that they were running the next day with elements of the story, as were City Press. It turned out that a person they had let into their inner circle had secretly copied the material and passed it on to political figures who wanted to get the material out before a critical ANC executive meeting. ‘They published it as a blunt political tool. The whistleblowers were still in the country and they rushed it, so they got some things wrong and threw some big stories away,’ Brkic says. The betrayal cut them to the quick and they were worried about the safety of the sources. They had to drop their plans for a slow, safe release of the material. ‘But at least the material was now so widely available that nobody could stop it coming out,’ Brkic said.
could stop it coming out,’ Brkic said. AmaBhungane and Daily Maverick put their teams together into a war room and they were soon joined by News24, which brought a much bigger audience. Across town, the Sunday Times and its sister papers did the same, and the race was on. ‘We were forced into the game of scooping each other, which isn’t the way we wanted it.’ The Sunday papers had broken the story first, but the Daily Maverick/ amaBhungane team was able to weave together information from hundreds of emails and their prior knowledge into a coherent picture showing a level of criminality that went beyond everyone’s worst imagining. The story, it turned out, was a triumph simultaneously for cooperation among large teams and competition between two different teams. For the next few weeks, the public enjoyed a flow of stories from data trawled from and pieced together from the emails. The mass of emails was too large to read them all, so they used word searches. And they homed in on emails with financial statements, diary entries and other attachments. Then they could trawl backwards to piece together the narratives.
It was the sheer weight and scale of the evidence that gave it authenticity. Nobody could fabricate so much, and the time sequences on the emails would have showed up any attempt to slip fake material among real emails. One of the most remarkable stories was one in which News24 exposed its own bosses, revealing a shady deal between the national broadcaster SABC, the ANN7 TV channel owned by the Guptas and Naspers, the parent company of News24. It was a notable display of journalistic independence. President Zuma was forced to call a judicial inquiry into the allegations, parliament began a series of hearings which for the first time subjected ministers and SOE chief executives to intense questioning, and police opened a number of investigations. President Zuma was ousted from office shortly thereafter.
It was also a turning point for amaBhungane and Daily Maverick. AmaBhungane raised a previously unimaginable R2.3 million in crowdfunding that year, up from about R800,000 the previous year. The saga also had its comic moments. When they finally got their hands on the material, they could not access the hard drive. There was panic until they realised that someone had got one letter wrong in the password. And when they put someone on a plane to take a copy of the material overseas for safekeeping, the person left it behind and another trip had to be made. When the joint team won the Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Reporting, the judges said: ‘There are only a few times in the history of a nation when journalists have played such a clear and crucial role in bringing a country back from the brink.’ On the day that Cyril Ramaphosa was named ANC president, partly on the back of an anti-corruption campaign powered by #GuptaLeaks, Brkic received a message from his chief executive: ‘We have a game-changer.’
Myburgh, Pieter-Louis. 2017. The Republic of Gupta. Johannesburg: Penguin.
Pauw, Jacques. 2017. The President’s Keepers. Cape Town: Tafelberg.
For full texts of these and other articles, see: www.amabhungane.co.za or www.dailymaverick.
co.za or www.news24.com
amaBhungane, Mail & Guardian, 19 March 2010
In the week that the presidency confirmed that Jacob Zuma’s women and children are costing the taxpayer more than R15 million a year, an investigation by the Mail & Guardian suggests they are also bidding for private benefit from their presidential connections. Information from Zuma’s declaration of interests, finally filed last week, as well as research of company registrations and other public documents, is captured in our graphic (available online). It gives a disturbing picture of the Zuma family’s push into business, especially in the period since Zuma’s ascension to the ANC presidency at Polokwane in December 2007. Of the 16 adults – wives, lovers and children – who can be linked to Zuma, 15 are in business, accounting, with Zuma, for 134 company directorships or memberships of close corporations. Only four of these appear to be Section 21 ‘not for profit’ companies. At least 83 companies (62%) have been registered in the post- Polokwane period when Zuma’s political future was secured. Their interests range across the economic spectrum and include property, resources, trade, mining, telecommunications and information technology. The M&G has not been able to establish what all the companies do – many may be inactive – but reporters asking questions have, with a few exceptions, faced suspicion and hostility. Information gathered by the M&G has already raised some worrying issues:
#GuptaLeaks: Guptas and associates score R5.3bn in locomotives kickbacks
amaBhungane/Scorpio, Daily Maverick, 1 June 2017
In our first exposé from the #GuptaLeaks, we show how the president’s friends and their associates are diverting billions of rand from Transnet’s purchase of locomotives to their offshore accounts. In a scheme so audacious and lucrative that it puts the notorious arms deal to shame, they: Entered kickback agreements totalling R5.3 billion with the Chinese manufacturer that became Transnet’s favourite locomotive supplier; Influenced procurement processes through their associates at Transnet; Are pocketing R10 million from each R50-million locomotive that Transnet is buying. This story presents the most direct evidence yet of the Guptas and their associates amassing fortunes offshor
#GuptaLeaks: Duduzane Zuma, Kept and Captured
amaBhungane/Scorpio, Daily Maverick, 1 June 2017
The 35-year-old son of President Jacob Zuma emerges from the #GuptaLeaks as kept and captured by the Gupta family. Duduzane Zuma, the 35-year-old son of President Jacob Zuma, emerges from the #GuptaLeaks as kept and captured by the Gupta family, serving as a key channel for influence on official decision-making, including his father’s. The files suggest that the Guptas took care of his every need, from paying for a Mauritian getaway for him and his then girlfriend in 2012, to funding his lavish multimillionrand marriage to Shanice Stork in April 2015, to setting him up with an R18-million Dubai apartment in the world’s tallest skyscraper, the iconic Burj Khalifa. The Gupta circle was also privy to some of his most sensitive secrets, with Gupta associate Ashu Chawla seemingly enjoying access to Zuma’s private gmail account, which shows the same exgirlfriend sending him suggestive pictures just a day after his new wife told him she was pregnant with their first child. On the night of February 1, 2014, when Zuma lost control of his Porsche on a rain-soaked Johannesburg highway and slammed into the back of a minibus taxi, killing Phumzile Dube, the first person he telephoned was the youngest Gupta brother, Rajesh ‘Tony’ Gupta, the e-mails show. The #GuptaLeaks also show that when the Sunday Sun approached the Gupta family in April 2015 saying Duduzane had allegedly made another woman pregnant, the Gupta machine was wheeled into action, providing spin from Oakbay chief executive Nazeem Howa. Later, company lawyer Gert van der Merwe provided advice on the terms of a R3.5-million maintenance settlement for the child and his mother. Meanwhile, Duduzane flew backwards and forwards, usually first class; drove fancy cars bought by Gupta group companies; or was chauffeured by limousine and stayed in five-star hotels, among them the Oberoi in Dubai and the Hotel National in Moscow. Gupta lackeys took care of tiresome details, like sorting out travel arrangements – or mopping up the demands for some R180,000 in arrears on municipal charges that he had built up on his Saxonwold abode, around the corner from the Gupta compound … They also paid him extremely well: In March 2015 he drew R300,000 per month in director fees, more than any other director, including the Gupta brothers.
#GuptaLeaks: How Bell Pottinger sought to package SA economic message
Daily Maverick and News24, 6 June 2017
In January last year Victoria Geoghegan, British-based PR firm Bell Pottinger’s Financial and Corporate partner, met with President Jacob Zuma’s son Duduzane to strategise a campaign aimed at marketing a ‘narrative that grabs the attention of the grassroots population who must identify with it, connect with it and feel united by it’. In so doing, the firm directly undermined the ANC’s capacity to communicate its own policies and programmes to South Africans and hijacked the ruling party’s message, seemingly to benefit the image of the Gupta family. Victoria Geoghegan later invoiced the Marketing Quotient, a Dubai-based company part-owned by Gupta family lieutenant, Salim Essa, a ‘project fee’ of £100,000 (about R2.3 million according to exchange rates in January 2016) for a consultation with Duduzane Zuma. The two met to discuss a brief for a five-month campaign which Duduzane later described in a letter to Geoghegan as ‘not primarily one to affect the outcome of the elections (2017) but to turn the tide of our country’s trajectory in the long term’. Earlier Geoghegan wrote to Duduzane that Bell Pottinger was keen to build a long-term partnership with Zuma and that ‘we want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in communicating such a vital message for South Africa. The future of the country in terms of fair economic growth, an inclusive society and political stability, depends on it’ … ‘Below is a set of recommendations based upon an initial project, with the opportunity for further projects to evolve: Create a non-party political narrative around the existence of economic apartheid and the vital need for more economic emancipation. This narrative should appeal to both potential third-party advocates in the business and academic communities and the grass-roots population; Provide assistance and advice on the setting up of a vehicle (the ‘entity’) to be the public face of the narrative; Whilst the narrative/vehicle is intended to be political partyagnostic, it will create opportunities for political commentary and participation; Bell Pottinger will package the narrative into speeches, press releases, website content, videos/broadcast content, slogans and any other material required; The initial project would draw on the strengths of both parties: Bell Pottinger’s strategic messaging skills, experience, international reach, and overall brand & credibility; and This would be complemented by the South African team’s access to domestic media outlets, digital capabilities and its incountry network; Utilise compelling research, case studies and data which illustrate the apartheid that still exists, and the need for truly inclusive growth. Bell Pottinger will analyse the data (for example: power generation, ports) and create fact sheets and easily understood collateral for wider dissemination; Engage media both domestically in South Africa, and internationally. This will reach both the all-important domestic audience, but also achieve international endorsement which will add credibility to the narrative and feed back into the domestic media also …’