Lakela Kaunda – ex-president Jacob Zuma’s most trusted aide, who served as deputy director-general in the presidency during his reign – arranged the meeting eight years ago between the Gupta family and former ANC member of parliament Vytjie Mentor where a Cabinet position offer was made at the Saxonwold family compound, the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture heard yesterday.
In her testimony before Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, Mentor, who chaired the parliamentary portfolio committee on public enterprises, told of how she struggled to secure a meeting with Zuma to discuss the implications of government’s stance to ditch the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR) project.
“I had been trying to meet the president to discuss the PBMR and made several attempts as I was concerned about public pronouncements made to close the project,” said Mentor.
“I was concerned about the intellectual property rights which sat with Eskom, having an agreement with Westinghouse – an American electric company,” said Mentor.
Classified in late 1999 as a strategic national project due to its significance and potential in international markets, the PBMR was a public-private partnership comprising the South African government, nuclear industry players and utilities.
According to Mentor, on one Sunday evening in 2010, a call came through from Kaunda confirming the much-awaited meeting she desperately wanted to have with Zuma.
“Lakela said the meeting I wanted to have with the president was going to take place the following day and I had to prepare taking a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg,” Mentor said.
Excited at the prospect of finally meeting Zuma, Mentor was concerned that the meeting would take place the following day.
She said Kaunda told her that “a gentleman” – who turned out to be Atul Gupta – would deal with Mentor’s trip logistics and call her.
“I was on crutches and needed assistance. When I enquired about what I would do once I landed, Lakela said Atul was going to call me,” said Mentor.
“Atul then assured me of all the assistance and that two gentlemen were coming through at OR Tambo International Airport to fetch me.
“When I arrived at the airport, two Indian gentlemen – one with a two-way radio, who wore a dark suit and sunglasses – was holding a placard with my name.”
Ferried from OR Tambo in a black vehicle she described as “luxurious”, little did Mentor know that she would soon find herself at the Guptas’ Sahara Computers business offices.
“I took comfort in the fact that I was being driven by designated people in a trip arranged by someone I know from the presidency.
“I was not paying attention until the vehicle came to a stop in an open parking of the Sahara offices,” she said.
Mentor was asked to wait at the reception for about 20 minutes and was later introduced to Ajay Gupta.
“I was agitated because I thought I was going to meet the president. Ajay said he was in a meeting with Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions). He said he would meet me later.”
Mentor was later driven to the Guptas’ Saxonwold compound and offered food and refreshments – mutton curry and Chai tea – by a barefooted Indian chef who bowed before her.
“I did not imagine meeting the president at someone’s private residence. I know the Union Buildings and Mahlamba-Ndlopfu,” said Mentor.
She was then allegedly offered the post of minister of public enterprises.
“Ajay said SA Airways and the PBMR were burning money and that the Gupta family were going to be the main suppliers of uranium in the South African nuclear build programme.
“He said SAA needed a turnaround strategy and if I facilitated the abolition of the Johannesburg-Mumbai flight route, I could become minister for public enterprises.
“I was shocked when I heard the president was going to reshuffle Cabinet and that Barbara Hogan was to be shuffled.
“Ajay said he could put a word in for me with the president and, when I showed shock, he said that was what they normally did.”
“I asked him how will all the people who travel to and from India and everyday cargo be transported … he said they [the Guptas] had a good relationship with Jet Airways who will ensure that the flight route continues. Hogan was then fired and replaced by [now Home Affairs Minister Malusi] Gigaba … and immediately after that, SAA stopped flying to India and Jet Airways took over the route.”
Mentor continues her testimony today.
– Additional reporting by ANA