Six days after the Gupta family infamously “fled” South Africa last year on a late-night flight, a second Gupta plane tried to leave with a box believed to have been full of diamonds.
On April 13, a Gupta business jet with tail number ZS-AKG was preparing to depart Fireblade Aviation’s VVIP (very, very important person) terminal at OR Tambo International Airport when X-ray scanners picked up something suspicious inside a suitcase belonging to the departing party.
In the suitcase was a box containing what looked like stones – more precisely, diamonds.
When Fireblade security asked to see what was inside, a Gupta security staffer refused, took the bag from the counter and left.
This version of events was provided by three independent sources – two close to Fireblade and one a senior member of South Africa’s security establishment.
The latter claimed the principal passenger was one of the three Gupta brothers.
Fireblade this week confirmed a “potential security incident” early one morning in April last year, but would not identify which client was involved.
A spokesperson said: “One of the suitcases caused our X-ray operator to have concerns.
The operator had seen what he thought to be suspicious items inside the suitcase.
“He then asked the representative of the owner of the piece of luggage in question to open the suitcase for further inspection.
“After some discussion the representative … opened the suitcase, but declined a request for a full examination of the contents. [He] then took back the suitcase and removed it from the Fireblade premises.”
The spokesperson said Fireblade immediately reported the incident to security at OR Tambo, where customs officers would have had to also check the aircraft before takeoff.
At the time of going to press, neither the Airports Company SA nor the SA Revenue Service, which is responsible for customs, could confirm what happened next.
But historical flight tracking records show that, at around 8.45 that morning, ZS-AKG, owned by the Guptas’ Islandsite Investments 180, flew northeast from a position near OR Tambo.
It is understood that the plane refuelled in Mobasa before flying to Dubai.
Gupta lawyer Gert van der Merwe referred amaBhungane for comment to Bell Pottinger, the public relations firm contracted by Gupta holding company Oakbay Investments.
Bell Pottinger said Oakbay had no comment.
At the time of their hurried departure from South Africa six days earlier, the Guptas denied reports they had moved large amounts of cash out of the country.
But their late-night departure on April 7, the discovery of their R458 million house in Dubai’s Emirates Hills, and allegations by Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema of millions of rands in cash being flown out of the country on private planes have raised doubts.
Although the family said it planned to sell all business interests in South Africa by the end of last year, this has not happened and they have maintained a partial presence in the country.
Luxury turf war
The Fireblade terminal is embroiled in a turf war between two powerful families – the Oppenheimers and the Guptas – and government.
Fireblade, majority owned by the Oppenheimer family, was established to cater for VVIP guests landing private jets at OR Tambo.
To date, R260 million has been spent on the seven-star terminal.
To run successfully, Fireblade requires customs and immigration officials on site, but after state-owned arms company Denel, which leases the premises to Fireblade, backtracked on commitments to support the project, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba suspended his approval.
“[Denel] went from being extremely supportive landlords to extremely obstructive landlords – I have no idea why,” business mogul Nicky Oppenheimer told journalists this week.
In November, Fireblade went to court to review Gigaba’s decision.
They argued there was evidence that Gigaba had already given his approval for the project and only reversed it when the new Denel board – alleged to be sympathetic to the Guptas – raised what Fireblade claims are spurious security concerns.
Gupta Jets Evicted
At the same time, Fireblade’s relationship with the Guptas soured.
A month after the April 13 incident, Fireblade terminated its business relationship with the Gupta company that owns ZS-AKG, a Cessna 680 Citation Sovereign business jet.
Fireblade instructed the company, Islandsite Investments 180, to remove the plane from its hangars.
In a curt letter on May 12, Fireblade operations director Robert Laing instructed Ronica Ragavan, acting chief executive officer (CEO) of Gupta holding company Oakbay Investments, to “ensure that all amounts owing … are paid in full” and “all moveables and assets belonging to Islandsite Investments 180 are removed from our premises” by June 30.
“One of the factors in our decision to terminate both these agreements is the concern we have relating to our reputational risk…” the letter read.
Ragavan included Fireblade’s termination letter in a separate court dispute between Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and Oakbay.
Asked this week why Fireblade cut ties with the Guptas, Oppenheimer would only say: “We didn’t terminate their contract. It came up for renewal [and] we decided not to renew it.
“There was a lot of noise about the Guptas. There was also already talk about them being interested – without any firm, conclusive evidence – in what we do here.
“We just thought with the renewal of the contract coming up, taking into account our reputation, it would be sensible not to renew it.”
State capture conspiracies
In a web of unrelated court cases filed last year, two distinct narratives of state capture emerged.
In one, the Guptas claim they are the victims of a conspiracy by a private sector determined to cut out a new competitor who threatens its entrenched interests.
On the other, Fireblade and others claim the Guptas have used their proximity to power to
become gatekeepers of state opportunities, forcing others to cut them in.
In Ragavan’s affidavit, she alleged that, at a meeting in January last year, Gordhan told
various CEOs that “steps must be taken to clip the wings of [the Gupta] family”.
“The minister’s statement resulted in a sudden refusal of many South African companies to conduct business with any entity linked to the Gupta family,” Ragavan stated.
At the same time, Fireblade suggested in its court papers that Denel’s sudden intransigence on its application was motivated by the Guptas wanting a stake in the facility.
In an affidavit filed in the High Court in Pretoria in November, Fireblade managing director Robbie Irons said while there was “[no] suggestion of ministerial capture … Denel’s flip-flops appear to be motivated by unlawful or at least improper considerations”.
Irons said a pilot who worked for the Guptas approached him with a message, allegedly from Rajesh Gupta, that “Fireblade had the wrong BEE [black economic empowerment] partner for the project [and] were Fireblade to change its BEE partner [to] an entity associated with the Gupta family, Mr Gupta could guarantee that the Fireblade application would receive ministerial approval within three days and Fireblade’s problems would go away”.
Irons also alleged a second pilot overheard a conversation between Ajay Gupta’s son, Kamal, and Denel CEO, Zwelakhe Ntshepe, on a flight to India in which Ntshepe allegedly said: “The Gupta family need not worry as Denel would ensure that Fireblade would not secure ministerial authorisation.”
Ntshepe filed an answering affidavit this month, saying these claims were “unfounded,
scandalous, vexatious, spurious, speculative, defamatory and … a desperate attempt on the part of Fireblade to jump on the proverbial bandwagon of popular narratives”.
He asked the court to have the comments struck out.
Fireblade is due to file a responding affidavit this week.
* This story was amended after publication to reflect that Bell Pottinger is contracted not by the Gupta family but their holding company, Oakbay Investments.