The #GuptaLeaks are becoming a deluge

William Saunderson-Meyer asks why our banks ignored the flashing red lights for so long


The chickens are still flying home to roost — except for those fowls hastily exiting with grab-bags of cash to Dubai — so it is difficult to be definitive. But the #GuptaLeaks email expose is probably the greatest investigative journalism coup in South African history. 

From the very outset, this seemed in its detail and cadence to be authentic, damaging material. When it grew into a journalistic torrent, a deluge drawing on some 100,000-200,000 emails, it became clear that they contained revelations that potentially could reshape political and commercial dynasties, both locally and abroad.

The Gupta family, the controversial cronies of President Jacob Zuma who stand accused of state capture, are a litigious lot. They have the resources to retard publication with a litigatory scorched earth policy. 

That they have chosen not to challenge in the courts material that in the eyes of any sentient observer eviscerates their reputations, might indicate that they are reconciled to their fate. But the more likely explanation is that the Guptas believe that they can ride out the shit-storm under the coat of legislative immunity afforded to them by Zuma’s control over prosecutorial processes.

Let’s not only blame Zuma, though. One must question the role that South Africa’s financial establishment has had in facilitating the Gupta’s questionable activities. 

Last year, South Africa’s four major banks, as well as an array of financial and auditing firms, terminated dealings with the Guptas, following increasingly difficult-to-ignore evidence of state capture and possible corruption. At the time, the banks cited the need to comply with international banking rules and concern over their reputations, as the explanation for the severing of Gupta ties. 

This week, the Bank of Baroda, which had stepped in to fill the resulting banking void, sounded the retreat. It reportedly gave Oakbay, the media arm of the Gupta empire, one month’s notice of closing its accounts. 

This seems to have come as a great surprise to the media employees at ANN7 television and the Gupta print-mouthpiece, The New Age. That’s what comes from believing one’s own propaganda.

If anything is clear from the emails — the veracity of which is unchallenged— it is that vast amounts of money of dubious origin and of questionable destination have been swilling through the banking system for a long time. 

Even a cursory joining of the dots should have immediately raised questions for these institutions. Questions for which, in terms of money laundering regulations, these institutions are obligated to get satisfactory answers from their customers.

Any ordinary citizen, who suffers daily the ubiquitous officiousness of SA’s banking sector, will know how insufferably nosy the banks are. So, in retrospect, in light of the #GuptaLeaks emails, the surprise is not that the banks acted against the Gupta accounts, but that they took so long to do so. 

The warning signs were there, but the financial sector was happy to ignore them for a long time, presumably because it was making money hand over fist. It was not until the Public Prosecutor’s investigation into state capture made it impossible to feign ignorance, that the banks belatedly seized upon the fig leaf of fiscal rectitude and acted.

But it is not only the local banks that seem to have succumbed to the siren songs of impropriety. The #GuptaLeaks are shredding the reputations of top international household names like consultants MckInsey, auditors KPMG, German software giant SAP, and British public relations agency Bell Pottinger. 

As they have scurried for cover, the checklist of exculpation has become familiar. It starts with, “We have always behaved to the highest professional standards.” Then comes, “Some of our junior frontline employees may have behaved inappropriately.” 

After the next tranche of #GuptaLeaks, it is, “We are appointing a highly regarded legal firm to conduct a thorough, transparent and impartial investigation.” Soon after, “There appears to have been some lapses in judgement at a senior level. The executive responsible has resigned with immediate effect.”

Despite the prosecutorial lassitude of local law enforcement, it is not likely to end there. The trail is now an international one and the authorities, especially in the United States, will not be as easily fobbed off as the SA ones have been.

It is a litany, then, that one hopes culminates with, “We regret to confirm that rogue elements in our management were today arrested. We feel shocked and betrayed.” 

Or even, “While I personally have never done anything wrong, I realise that since these events happened on my watch, it is inappropriate for me to continue as president of the republic.”

Follow WSM on Twitter @The JaundicedEye