Guptas 'Not Threatening' South Africa's Public Protector: Lawyer

Thuli Madonsela
South African Public Protector Thuli Mandosela gives a press briefing at the Public Protector office on August 28, 2014 in Pretoria. Madonsela is probing the relationship between President Jacob Zuma and the Guptas, a wealthy business family in South Africa. GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

The Guptas are not threatening South Africa's Public Protector Thulisile Madonsela as she probes President Jacob Zuma's relationship with the family, according to the family's lawyer.

The public protector—an independent watchdog tasked with investigating government corruption—is due to issue a report on Friday regarding allegations of an inappropriate relationship between the Indian business family and Zuma.

Opposition parties have accused the Guptas of trying to take control of state institutions, while South Africa's deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas said in March that the family had offered him a political promotion while previous finance minister Nhlanhla Nene was still in office. The Guptas have denied the allegations and announced in August that the family planned to dispose of all stakes it holds in South African businesses by the end of 2016.

The lawyer for Ajay Gupta, the eldest of the brothers, publicly released correspondence addressed to the public protector on Tuesday, warning that should Madonsela publish her report on Friday, she would do so "at [her] own peril and at [her] own risk." The correspondence claimed that Madonsela had not given the Guptas ample opportunity to respond to the allegations against them.

Gert van der Merwe, Ajay Gupta's lawyer and the director of Pretoria-based legal firm Van der Merwe & Associates, tells Newsweek that he had not been given the opportunity to interview the witnesses who have given evidence in the investigation, and that evidence that might implicate the Guptas had only been given to him once Ajay Gupta was out of the country and unable to address the issue.

The lawyer says that if Madonsela publishes the report on Friday without offering the Guptas the opportunity to respond, it could mean thousands of South Africans employed by the family losing their jobs. "If this report comes out, the effect on the Gupta business employing 7,500 people will be devastating," says van der Merwe.

The three Gupta brothers—Ajay, Atul and Rajesh—moved to South Africa in 1993, just prior to the end of apartheid, and have gone on to build a business empire including interests in media, mining and IT. The family has established a close relationship with Zuma, who has been president since 2009 and leader of the governing African National Congress since 2007: three members of Zuma's immediate family have been employed by Gupta-owned businesses.

Zuma's office on Monday asked the public protector to delay publication of the report so that the president would also have the opportunity to review the evidence against him and interview witnesses. But Madonsela has refused, saying that the investigation will be completed in two parts, the first of which will be published on Friday.

Jacob Zuma
South African President Jacob Zuma answers questions at the South African Parliament, on September 13 in Cape Town. Zuma has asked Madonsela to delay the publication of her report. RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images

The report will be the last act of Madonsela, who completes her seven-year term as public protector on Saturday. Van der Merwe says that the prospect of rushing the investigation due to Madonsela's impending exit is "ill-conceived" and would have lasting consequences.

"You can imagine that if a preliminary report does not rely on proper facts, it will never change its nature to a final report and it will mislead the public, those who are to be served by the report in the first place. My understanding is that, in any event, it is to be a final report," says Van der Merwe.

In the correspondence published on Tuesday, Van der Merwe claimed that Madonsela never summoned the Guptas to give evidence in the investigation, but that Ajay Gupta only secured a meeting with her after he made an approach through the lawyer. Ajay Gupta gave evidence on October 4, according to Van der Merwe, but Madonsela "appeared agitated and irritated with our client" and allegedly refused to listen to the answers given by the businessmen.

The correspondence concluded that Madonsela had "a predetermined view of how your report should look" and that the report, if published on Friday, would not have been carried out in good faith.

Speaking to Newsweek, Van der Merwe adds that he would launch a legal application to have the report reviewed should it contain negative implications for the Guptas.

"It's in no way whatsoever a threat. I must tell a person what I intend to do when I write a letter like this...It's a public protector, it's not a nursery school choir, it's someone who knows the law and who must know the law," he says.

Madonsela has not publicly responded to the letter and her spokesman Kgalalelo Masibi said she had nothing further to say on the matter.