Riaz Saloojee, group CEO of Denel. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
Riaz Saloojee, group CEO of Denel. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

Former Denel CEO Riaz Saloojee admitted he attended three meetings with members of the Gupta family at the behest of their business ally Salim Essa within the first six months of his appointment at the state-owned armaments company.

Testifying at the Zondo commission into state capture on Wednesday, Saloojee, who headed Denel between 2012 and 2015, said Essa contacted him in 2012 and asked him to attend a meeting that would be in both Denel’s and his “interests”.

Denel was one of the state-owned enterprises mired in allegations of corruption and state capture and found itself in a deep financial crisis which led to it needing a government guarantee to enable it to pay salaries and suppliers.

Saloojee — who  was controversially fired in 2015, widely believed then as a result of him not doing the Guptas’ bidding — told the Zondo commission he was aware of who the Gupta brothers were and had met Essa at a number of events relating to the defence industry.

“I was contacted by Essa and he indicated that he would like me to meet some people and it would be in Denel’s interests and in my interests to meet these people. He also had indicated that it would be important to attend such a meeting because it had support at the highest level,” said Saloojee.

“With all the publicity surrounding the relationship with the Guptas and Essa‚ when he said ‘the very top’‚ he meant the head of the executive‚” Saloojee told the commission‚ referring to then president Jacob Zuma.

“We had many meetings of this kind with other institutions and entities … I agreed to go to the meeting with them.”

Saloojee was fetched by Essa from a coffee shop in Oaklands‚ Johannesburg‚ and driven to the Guptas’ residential compound in Saxonwold.

Saloojee said he was initially taken into a room where he was introduced to Rajesh Gupta and the two exchanged pleasantries. It was the first time‚ according to his evidence‚ that he had met a member of the Gupta family.

Saloojee  said he was then taken into another room‚ where Atul Gupta and then public enterprises minister Malusi Gigaba — who would have effectively been Saloojee’s political boss — were present.

“All Gigaba said was‚ ‘Hello‚ how are you‚ Riaz?’ There was no discussion of Denel or anything of the sort. He [Gigaba] said‚ ‘These are my friends‚’ and said‚ ‘If at some point you can assist them with anything‚ that would be good’,” Saloojee recalled.

“My only view was that it was a display of the influence that they [the Guptas] had and the extent of that influence. The only conclusion that I could come to at that point was that it was a show of force.”

‘Summoned to meeting’

A few weeks later‚ Saloojee said he was “summoned” to another meeting by Essa.

At that meeting‚ Saloojee claimed that Rajesh‚ Essa‚ Jacob Zuma’s son Duduzane and another man who was introduced to him as “Ace Magashule’s son” were all present at the Saxonwold residence.

Answering questions about Magashule’s son’s involvement in the meeting‚ Saloojee said: “They said‚ ‘He works with us‚’ —something to that effect.”

Leaked e-mails from the Guptas’ business empire previously showed that the then Free State premier’s son‚ Tshepiso Magashule‚ began working for the Guptas as a consultant in 2010.

At the meeting‚ Saloojee  said that Essa “kept on saying they had the support of Number One and the old man”. Rajesh Gupta then took the lead‚ saying they wanted to do business with Denel and help the company to acquire new business in other markets  such as the Middle East and Asia.

“It became clear to me that they wanted to enter the defence environment and they had seen Denel as a vehicle to enter the defence environment‚” said Saloojee.

Saloojee’s evidence shows that the Guptas may have been plotting their controversial 2016 partnership with Denel into the Indian market as early as 2012.

In January 2016‚ the formation of Denel Asia was announced. It was described as a Hong Kong-based joint venture between Denel‚ which would control a 51% holding of the company‚ and VR Laser‚ which belonged to Essa. Had it materialised‚ the deal would have seen Denel’s intellectual property being sold off to India with very little benefit to the company.

At the third meeting, with Rajesh Gupta and Essa, Saloojee was confronted for his “lack of cooperation” on the India matter, as well as Denel’s lack of financial support for The New Age, the Guptas’ newspaper at the time, he testified.