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NPA head Shamila Batohi. Picture: ALON SKUY
NPA head Shamila Batohi. Picture: ALON SKUY

President Cyril Ramaphosa counts the recent arrest of Atul and Rajesh Gupta as being among the “green shoots” of SA’s progress and recovery in dealing with state capture. “These are the signs that we are on the right track. They give us hope and confidence to forge ahead,” he said on Thursday.

Not so fast, Mr President. We haven’t had a proper update on developments since the news broke four days ago. And leaked emails show it took the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) two-and-a-half months to respond to an Interpol request for Gupta fingerprints, which the authority already had on file. Why the delay?

The justice department, meanwhile, wasn’t even willing to confirm the arrests initially. The most illuminating official word came from neither justice minister Ronald Lamola, nor National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi, nor the head of the NPA’s Investigative Directorate (ID), advocate Andrea Johnson. It came from a Dubai police tweet on Tuesday with a nameless, faceless author.

Since the arrests four days ago there have been no proper updates. We don’t know who leads SA’s team of state capture busters or which NPA prosecutors are in the UAE right now. Why hasn’t the NPA told us who is working to get the Gupta brothers in the dock to answer for their actions? And what has happened over the past few days?

Things have gone alarmingly quiet since Dubai police arrested the two Guptas on Monday. What happened next should have been simple. The cut-and-dried legal process is: after arrest, the suspects appear in court in Dubai, apply for bail which they are (probably) denied for being flight risks, extradition follows and they go on trial in SA.

There are worrying signs SA authorities were caught off guard and have been bamboozled by the actions of Dubai police. The state has called on senior advocate Anton Katz for help, but only after the arrests. A junior prosecutor has been tasked with the extradition proceedings. The NPA is scrambling to catch up, which may explain the terse communication.

One would have thought now is the time for the Department of Justice and the NPA to drum up the “good news” for all it’s worth, especially after Batohi in April promised “seminal cases” on state capture over the next six months. The Guptas have evaded authorities since fleeing SA in 2018, and they aren’t in hot water only with SA; they are sanctioned in the US and UK too. 

This week’s prominent arrests relate to the sole state capture matter currently enrolled in SA that actually cites members of the Gupta family among the accused. It is the reason SA was able to persuade worldwide policing body Interpol to issue Red Notices for the Guptas in the first place. They were charged in connection with a R24m fraud in a case brought to court a year ago: the Free State’s department of rural development paid Gupta aide Iqbal Sharma’s postbox company Nulane Investment R24m for a feasibility study that was actually produced by Deloitte for R1.5m. The state claims the money was diverted from Nulane to the Guptas’ company Islandsite Investments.

Of course, the figure at issue in the Nulane case is chump change compared with the billions of rand the Guptas are accused of stealing. According to international law, they cannot be extradited to SA over the Nulane case and later lumped with several more charges.

This is a do-or-die moment for the NPA, and there are few vital signs. The prognosis is troubling, too: if the Guptas slip from SA’s grasp in Dubai, there will be no second chances. They will ride off into the Uzbek sunset with their SA loot safely burrowed away.

In this worst-case scenario the UAE is the biggest winner. It will have acted against suspects banned by US and UK authorities and wanted in SA. It will have shown it is serious about tackling financial crime and combating money laundering. It will have spruced up its image, taken a step at bettering its reputation as a global financial hub, and warded off a dreaded grey listing.

SA, meanwhile, appears to be rummaging for a pen.

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