South Africans have been enthralled as the Gupta saga has unfolded. Reports about the family and its close ties with President Jacob Zuma have riveted the nation, and this new book is adding to the mix.

The timing couldn’t have been better, with the fallout from the latest cabinet reshuffle, when finance minister Pravin Gordhan was axed in favour of a Gupta-aligned minister Malusi Gigaba, still reverberating.

It’s also a good moment to release a book about a topic South Africans are keenly interested in at a time when the words "junk status" and "Zupta" have become standard conversation starters.

It was in 2013 that the names of the Gupta family first made headlines.

Sources were prepared to help with details on an off-the-record basis but a lot of people weren’t willing to talk

A jet carrying over 200 guests attending the wedding of a niece of the Guptas at Sun City landed at the Waterkloof Air Force Base, a controlled military facility.

"That was the watershed moment," says Myburgh. "The audacity of the exploit and the sheer brassiness of it all was next-level state capture."

Zuma defended it by telling the ANC’s national executive committee that the air force base was a strategic entry point.

Pieter-Louis Myburgh: I wanted to use the family as a focal point
Pieter-Louis Myburgh: I wanted to use the family as a focal point

Myburgh says: "We suddenly had to ask: who is this family and how are they able to get away with these kinds of exploits?"

Myburgh, an award-winning investigative journalist for News24, dug up every news source on the Guptas, from their not-so-humble beginnings in the town of Saharanpur in India to the Waterkloof debacle.

The book might add little new to the narrative, and the absence of any interviews or sound bites from the Guptas, which Myburgh says was on legal advice, is a weakness. However, to
anyone wanting to understand state capture, it’s a helpful starting point.

Filling the gaps

It’s a warm morning in Johannesburg and Myburgh is dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. Over a cappuccino he’s eager to dive right in and talk about all he’s uncovered in the past year. The book is already on Exclusive Books’ must-read shelf.

Myburgh says his transition from journalist to nonfiction writer for this project was with the intention of breaking free of the confines imposed by a newspaper article. The idea was to create a book that was digestible and easy to read. He created a narrative reminiscent of a Lee Child thriller, of a family swooping into the country, hell-bent on capturing a young democracy.

He tried to fill in the gaps in the Gupta story by getting in touch with business associates of the family from the mid-1990s.

The story reads like a rags-to-riches tale — only it isn’t quite that. The Guptas were relatively well off when they first came to SA. No match to their current Saxonwold status, of course, but they started their business venture with R1.24m in 1993.

Myburgh explains that people saw the Guptas as "decent and hardworking people" when they started out. Their beginnings were humble, says Myburgh. They sold goods from the boots of their cars at Johannesburg’s Bruma Lake.

"It’s about not only looking at their latest endeavours but their history before that," he explains.

Myburgh says the book is an avenue into the understanding of state capture that he hopes will spark a debate about other well-connected families.

He sees state capture as the attempt by individuals or businesses to get high-profile politicians in their pocket and exert undue influence.

"I wanted to use the family as a focal point. The Guptas aren’t the only ones out there, but it’s a special case because of their connection with Zuma and his family members."

The relationship with Zuma has led to some farcical aspects. After the cabinet reshuffle at the end of March, a Wikipedia article on SA jokingly named Atul Gupta as president. That is telling of the scrutiny around the relationship between the Zumas and the Guptas and public anger over how much influence they exert.

"We stalled publication [until the cabinet reshuffle]. [It] was important for the broader narrative," says Myburgh.

The question, of course, is: what happens to the Guptas after Zuma?

"They must have an escape plan," says Myburgh. "I think they have plans to exit the country. I don’t think that when Zuma goes, the Gupta empire as we know it will continue to operate as it has. Obviously we’ve read and know about their ties with the likes of [former Eskom boss] Brian Molefe, [new finance minister] Malusi Gigaba, other cabinet members and people at state-owned companies," says Myburgh. "But I really do believe that Zuma is at the core."

However, Myburgh’s book suggests that the Guptas’ relationship with government stretches far beyond Zuma. It brings to light again the family’s connections with former President Thabo Mbeki. "They achieved unprecedented success during Zuma’s tenure, but I wanted to show South Africans that the Guptas started reaching out to government way before Zuma came to power."

Myburgh is referring to a group of businesspeople who were part of a council formed under Mbeki. "It was a secret council, but ‘secretive’ was a word they were vehemently opposed to."

Exit plan reports

Mbeki has since lambasted the claim, calling it "fake news". In an open letter to the Mail & Guardian, Mbeki said: "We have said this before, and I reiterate this here, that I have never been ‘close to the Guptas’!"

"It’s been very interesting to see how Mbeki has distanced himself from it," says Myburgh.

There have been indications in the news that the Guptas have plans to exit the country. Reports have ranged from allegations that they have moved their assets to Dubai to their statements that they are selling shares in their companies. Last year they stepped down as directors in some of their businesses.

"It’s a plan I definitely think they’re harbouring," says Myburgh. "They’re probably looking at moving their primary residence and base elsewhere."

Despite the depressing tale of the Republic of Gupta, Myburgh thinks the strong civil society and media in SA is the saving grace separating us from becoming a kleptocracy or a failed state. "I may be naive, but I’m always an optimistic South African," he says.

"We must be vigilant about not getting obsessed with this idea of state capture and just keep the conversation about corruption to the fore."

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