A year ago, on January 28 2016, Nicky Oppenheimer walked into a meeting room at the offices of home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba in Pretoria. Flanking him were Bruce Tillim and Robbie Irons, directors of the Oppenheimer family’s aviation company, Fireblade. For three years Fireblade had been battling to get approval from Gigaba’s department to use its luxury airport terminal, built for international flights.

The meeting was meant to be the final hurdle. But what happened next is being fiercely contested in court proceedings that flared up this week — pitting one of SA’s wealthiest families against Gigaba, the Guptas and state-owned arms company Denel.

The Oppenheimer terminal, which was built on land leased from Denel at OR Tambo airport, opened for domestic flights in 2014. But the viability of the project hinged on catering for international travellers.

The theory was that visiting celebrities and heads of state would pay top dollar to park their jets at the Oppenheimer hangars, and then be whisked through on-site immigration and customs facilities to their waiting limousines, without going through the main airport buildings.

When the luxury airport terminal
was first mooted, Denel wrote to Fireblade offering its tenants its ‘full support’

The project has had many enthusiasts over the years. In 2012, when it was first mooted, Denel wrote to Fireblade offering its tenants its “full support” — including securing approval for customs and immigration services.

Next came William Mpye, who chairs the border control operational co-ordinating committee, an umbrella body led by the SA Revenue Service that oversees all state agencies operating at SA’s points of entry.

“I personally support the idea,” Mpye said after attending a Fireblade presentation in April 2013.

In February 2014, the Airports Company SA (Acsa) gave its stamp of approval. Two years later Acsa executive Andre Vermeulen wrote to Fireblade urging it to “urgently ... commence international aircraft and passenger movements”.

Acsa’s support was understandable, as this would be the first step towards its long-term commercial aviation plan for OR Tambo, allowing private jets on international flights to be diverted “from the current congested facilities at the main terminals”. It would help Acsa host VIPs and heads of state at “high-visibility events”.

The Oppenheimer terminal would also improve safety because “runway crossings by aircraft will be reduced tremendously”, said Vermeulen.

Malusi Gigaba: Strongly disputes Fireblade’s version of events. Picture: ALON SKUY
Malusi Gigaba: Strongly disputes Fireblade’s version of events. Picture: ALON SKUY

All went swimmingly, and by the middle of 2015, the only hold-up appeared to be cost. In a letter sent to Gigaba in May that year, finance minister Nhlanhla Nene said Sars would need to spend R3m a year to staff a dedicated customs unit for the terminal. The price tag was too high, especially since the same facilities were available at OR Tambo’s main building, said Nene. No problem, replied the Oppenheimers, we’ll pick up the tab for a three-year trial period.

So in December 2015, Nene accepted their offer — despite reservations from Sars about a private entity funding a government function.

After some flip-flopping Denel reiterated its support. In January last year, acting CEO Zwelakhe Ntshepe wrote to Gigaba saying Denel had completed its “discussions and fact finding” and “approves and supports our tenants”. Ntshepe said Denel was “endorsing the project to go ahead and we further endorse that the minister of home affairs can issue the ad hoc international status approval to operate”.

At the fateful meeting, Gigaba was accompanied by four senior officials — including acting chief of staff Nobuhle Mazibuko and deputy director-general for immigration services Jackson McKay. According to minutes drawn up by Fireblade, the atmosphere seemed so jovial you could almost hear champagne corks popping.

In this version, Gigaba apologised for the delays, confirmed he’d signed an approval letter that would be released to all relevant parties, and instructed his staff to finalise procedures for customs and immigration to launch the three-year trial.

McKay even said the plan would be tabled as an “information-only presentation” with the inter agency clearing forum — a panel set up for the 2010 World Cup, consisting of all the heads of departments engaged in border control — as authorisation had already been obtained directly from Gigaba.

Then Gigaba had an idea. Why not use the Oppenheimer terminal — which is kitted out like a 7-star hotel complete with VIP suites, day bedrooms and a bistro that serves organic food grown in the garden — to promote one of his pet projects: the premium visa centre for executives.

Oppenheimer agreed this was a splendid proposal and offered his full co-operation. Gigaba suggested President Jacob Zuma be invited to the terminal’s opening ceremony.

The next morning Tillim sent the minutes to Gigaba’s office. Mazibuko, his acting chief of staff, wrote back to say the minutes were “noted”, and that McKay would set up a meeting with the Fireblade team the following week “so that processes can start shaping”.

Malusi Gigaba is contesting Nicky Oppenheimer’s version of what happened at a crucial meeting

That afternoon Oppenheimer wrote to Gigaba expressing his delight “to be told that all outstanding matters had now been resolved and that you signed the necessary letter to empower Fireblade to offer customs and immigration at its facility on a three-year trial basis”.

Within days, McKay invited border control committee “stakeholders” to attend a meeting at the Fireblade facility, where a draft memorandum of understanding was distributed. This set out protocols for on-site processing of passengers and luggage arriving on international flights. Under the heading “conduct of officials” it said taking happy snaps of “celebrities and dignitaries” was “strictly prohibited”.

But then, Denel chairman Daniel Mantsha dropped a bombshell — asking Gigaba to put the plan on ice.

Mantsha is no stranger to controversy. In 2007 he was struck off the roll of attorneys for dishonesty, incompetence and misappropriation of funds, though he was readmitted by the high court in 2011.

In 2015, he was legal adviser to communications minister Faith Muthambi when she bypassed parliament to remove SABC board members in defiance of the Broadcast Act. (This move drew heavy criticism from parliament last year.)

Last July, Mantsha was appointed to chair a new Denel board. The only member retained from the previous board was Johannes “Sparks” Motseki, who once described himself as a close friend of Duduzane Zuma and someone with business ties to the Guptas.

Almost immediately, the new board fired CEO Riaz Saloojee. Soon after, it set up a controversial partnership with the Gupta-linked VR Laser Asia.

Saloojee later described VR Laser as a “letterbox company” with no footprint or experience in Asia, adding that he would never have approved the partnership. And yet, Mantsha staunchly defended the deal — despite objections from treasury.

The Guptas were eyeing a slice of the action at Fireblade, according to papers filed in the North Gauteng high court.

Fireblade director Irons said in an affidavit that a Gupta pilot had told him that Tony (Rajesh) Gupta had asked him, during a flight from Moscow in November, to convey a message. It was this: Fireblade needs a new black empowerment partner, approved by the Saxonwold family, if it wanted Gigaba’s approval.

According to another pilot, when this ploy failed, the Guptas induced Denel to block Gigaba’s approval, according to Irons’s affidavit.

On February 2 2016, just five days after the Oppenheimer meeting, Mantsha wrote to Gigaba that he should ignore Ntshepe’s endorsement letter. In fact, he said, he was taking “disciplinary steps” against his CEO for writing it without board authorisation. Denel’s board had asked the State Security Agency (SSA) to investigate “the controversial circumstances related to the transaction (which) has dire security implications for Denel”.

Denel later told Fireblade this meant its directors, including Oppenheimer, must be vetted by the SSA. In June the SSA issued Fireblade’s directors with security clearances.

Strangely, Gigaba then made an abrupt U-turn. In a handwritten note on a memo to McKay, he said: “Ntshepe’s approval ... must be set aside, as advised by (Mantsha).”

He added that “Fireblade must be made aware forthwith that the approval we granted is also suspended until further notice pending Denel’s investigations and their conclusion”.

As it stands now, Gigaba strongly disputes Fireblade’s version of events.

In court papers filed last month, Gigaba denied that he’d ever approved the application at the Fireblade meeting. He says he only asked McKay to “conduct a feasibility study”. He also disputes the “so-called minutes”, which are unsigned and “not adopted as is standard process”.

Nicky Oppenheimer: Had expressed his delight that all outstanding matters had been resolved. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA
Nicky Oppenheimer: Had expressed his delight that all outstanding matters had been resolved. Picture: ROBERT TSHABALALA

Gigaba says he had rejected the proposal because it would be illegal, unconstitutional and beyond his powers to designate a port of entry for exclusive private use by the family.

“I would have considered the same whether it had come from the Oppenheimers, the Guptas or any other family,” he said.

Perhaps to pre-empt the inevitable response, Gigaba strenuously denied that his decision “was in any way influenced by Denel and/or the Gupta family”. In fact, he says, he’s “never had any discussions with members of the Gupta family” about the project.

“The only party I have met is ... members of the Oppenheimer family (who) constantly harassed me about their application,” he said.

This week Denel weighed in, taking an almighty dip at Fireblade. The arms maker slams the Oppenheimer company’s allegations of undue influence by the Gupta family as “scandalous, vexatious, spurious, speculative [and] defamatory”.

Ntshepe said in an affidavit that it was “extremely suspicious” that the pilots whose views Irons had relied on had refused to sign confirmatory affidavits. He asked the court to rule their “hearsay evidence” inadmissible.

He says Denel simply wanted Fireblade to meet its security obligations. The arms maker was awaiting “an acceptable clearance report from the SSA which clears every person associated with Fireblade who has access to the site”. Rather than slinging mud at Denel, Ntshepe says Fireblade should address its concerns about delays to the SSA.

The Gupta family have never publicly commented on the case since the allegations were first aired last year. Their lawyer, Gert van der Merwe, referred detailed questions sent to him last week to public relations firm Bell Pottinger, which has not responded.

When the trial finally begins, it seems likely they’ll be called to testify, as will the pilots who delivered the “message” that seems, from the outside, to be tantamount to extortion.

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