25 April 2024 | 04:21 AM

The barren Sahara: a lesson in money laundering

Key Takeaways

Sahara Computers was always the Guptas’ flagship company – the one the family cited to show they ran a legitimate business, not dependent on their political connections.

Except, of course, it was neither of those things.

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Court papers recently filed by the Transnet Second Defined Benefit Fund (TSDBF) include documents showing that more than 98 percent of Sahara’s profits for the month of June 2015 came from a series of illicit payments, extracted from Transnet.

The payments – totaling R122-million exactly – came from Albatime, a now defunct company that made its fortune by introducing Salim Essa, the Guptas’ business partner, to Regiments Capital, a financial services firm at the center of state capture allegations.

(Read amaBhungane’s Trojan horse investigation.)

The payments were made under the guise of a bogus IT contract which promised Albatime – a one-man show based in a tiny Rivonia office – basic computer support services for two years at a cost of R122-million.

But a spreadsheet, sourced from the #GuptaLeaks and included in TSDBF’s court papers, shows that Sahara recorded the costs of the contract at just R167 – leading to an astonishing profit of R121 999 833.

The bogus contract dwarfs any other business Sahara conducted that month. The second largest amount came from the Gupta-owned Annex Distribution (R20.9-million, but loss-making) and Edcon (R12.5-million), followed by a number of smaller payments of less than R3-million from Russells, Morkels, Joshua Doore and OK Furniture.

But none achieved the near-100% profit margin of the Albatime contract, and several were recorded as loss-making.

Altogether, Sahara recorded R187.85-million in turnover that month, of which R123.46-million was profit. Put differently, without the R122-million Transnet money laundered to it via Albatime, Sahara was hardly a profitable business at all.

An earlier amaBhungane investigation identified Transnet as the likely source of the payment.

On 3 June 2015, Regiments issued an invoice to Transnet for R166-million, ostensibly for helping Transnet to secure funding from China Development Bank (CDB).

Regiments did not deserve the fees.

Transnset former treasurer Mathane Makgato told the Zondo Commission how she had been pressured to accept the CDB loan, even though the terms were unfavourable.

She told the commission that Regiments was inserted as an unnecessary advisor despite the fact that Transnet treasury was more than capable of raising the funding.

After Makgato resigned, her replacement, Phetolo Ramosebudi, signed off on the loan as well as Regiments’ fee.

Documents leaked to amaBhungane showed that Ramosebudi had been receiving unexplained payments from Regiments for years.

But the R166-million was not Regiments’ alone to keep.

Instead, soon after Transnet paid Regiments R166-million, Regiments received an invoice from Albatime – the one-man company in Rivonia – for R124.5-million.

The original Albatime invoice described the services as “CDB” but it was later replaced by a duplicated invoice that described the services as “IT sales and support”.

“Albatime has never been engaged in any IT Sales or Support activities. This invoice was an out and out fraud designed to provide cover for a laundering arrangement with the Gupta family IT company Sahara Computers,” Piet Maritz, the principal officer of the Transnet pension fund told the Johannesburg high court in an affidavit filed on Monday.

The fund highlighted this payment in its papers to demonstrate that Regiments director Eric Wood had been involved in a scheme to help Essa and the Guptas extract and launder alleged kickbacks from state-owned entities.

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Susan Comrie

Susan took an unconventional career path into investigative journalism. After studying graphic design and art direction, she joined the Daily Voice as a freelance entertainment writer before she eventually managed to persuade her various editors to let her write more in-depth, investigative features.

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