Former Parliamentarian Vytjie Mentor’s much-anticipated testimony at the inquiry into state capture didn’t reveal any shockers, but it shed some more light on the influence wielded by the controversial Gupta brothers and their power over the state’s resources.
She confirmed to the inquiry how she was offered a ministerial position by the Guptas, provided she tweak the routes flown by the state airline.
Testifying before deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, Mentor described how, despite asking on numerous occasions for an audience with Jacob Zuma over the country’s pebble bed nuclear reactor project, she was suddenly granted a meeting with him while on a state visit in China in 2010.
The meeting was set up by a Gupta brother, she said.
Feeling awkward, she declined to meet Zuma in China, but another opportunity came her way a few weeks later, when the Guptas facilitated the infamous meeting in Saxonwold detailed in former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report.
It was there, Mentor says, that they offered her the position of public enterprises minister if she meddled in the South African Airways routes.
Mentor, who was the chair of the Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises at the time, went to China on Transnet’s dime – a first-class Emirates ticket via Dubai.
She said on board the flight, Duduzane Zuma introduced her to Rajesh Gupta, businessman Fana Hlongwane and another “unknown man of Indian descent”.
Mentor said Rajesh told her during the introduction that one of his brothers was already in China as part of the advance team in charge of logistics.
Mentor said while she was at a hotel room, one of the Gupta brothers called and insisted that Jacob Zuma wanted to meet with her before proceeding to the state banquet that was planned.
However, she could not recall which of the Gupta brothers had made the call.
“At first, he was boastful and spoke with confidence on his role and importance in the state visit, and as I stood my ground that I was not going with, he became aggressive and he said he was going to call the president and tell him that I am refusing.”
Despite another call from the Gupta brother, Mentor said she refused to leave the hotel with him, raising concerns about her safety in a foreign country.
“I cannot go and hand myself to a man that’s got a reputation with women on a silver platter, driven by strange people,” Mentor testified.
The former ANC MP said the visit also surprised her because she had tried on several occasions to meet with Zuma over the country’s nuclear reactor project.
“I had tried to see the president on home soil, so it was strange and discomforting that I would be invited to see the president on foreign soil,” she testified.
Mentor also told the commission how the Gupta brothers were in charge at official ceremonies during the state visit.
“In the meeting room where the Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies opened the proceedings, he handed over to the person I came to know for sure as a Gupta brother. They were milling all over, they were in charge, so to speak,” she said.
Mentor testified that the Gupta brothers were given tags that other officials did not have, which “officialised them” and gave them more weight than others.
In 2010, about “two weeks” after the China trip, maybe sometime in September, Mentor was invited to Saxonwold.
She flew to Joburg from Cape Town and was met by two men who held a placard with her name.
She says the men wore dark suits and sunglasses and asked her how she was doing, and she recognised Rajesh.
After a stopover at the Sahara offices, where she was introduced to Ajay Gupta, she was taken to what she thought was a “holding room” for a meeting with Zuma, but it turned out to be a residential home.
Mentor says she did not know exactly whose residence they were at, and what the address was, but she later came to learn that it was in Saxonwold.
She says she suspected it was just another government residence.
Mentor didn’t have to sign in at the gate and once they passed the guards, she says she saw a few houses, but they stopped at the biggest one, which she describes as “gigantic”, and it is this “mansion” which they entered.
She was assisted up the marble stairs, because she was on crutches.
Mentor says she was made to wait in the “lounge” or “reception area” of the mansion.
“Ajay” entered the room and they spoke about her being from the Northern Cape, and how she could be “useful” to them.
Mentor says the conversation soon turned to SAA, and Mentor said Ajay told her that the “turnaround strategy” at the airline wasn’t working.
Mentor confirmed she was offered the position of public enterprises minister if she abolished the SAA Johannesburg to Mumbai (India) route.
Mentor says Ajay Gupta told her she could become minister of public enterprises in the near future and that the president was going to reshuffle his Cabinet.
Mentor was taken aback that Ajay knew about an imminent Cabinet reshuffle when there was nothing in the media about it.
Mentor says when she asked how she would be appointed, Ajay said “they could put in a word for me with the president”.
The Guptas explained that Jet Airways, an airline with which “they were working”, would take over the route.
It was Jet Airways from whom the Guptas chartered the aircraft that ferried guests from India to Johannesburg – landing at the Waterkloof Airforce Base – to attend a family wedding in 2013.
Mentor said that, after Barbara Hogan was fired and Malusi Gigaba came into the public enterprises position, the India/SA Route was cancelled as suggested by Ajay at their meeting in Saxonworld. Jet Airways filled the slot.
Mentor will appear before the inquiry again on Tuesday because there were documents that came in on Monday morning that she hadn’t seen.
She was the third witness to testify at the commission of inquiry into state capture which is currently under way in Parktown, Johannesburg.
Friday saw explosive testimony from former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas, who told the commission that one Gupta brother had claimed they were “in control of everything; we are in control of the NPA, we are in control of the Hawks, we are in control of national intelligence. So, we are in full control and the old man [former president Jacob Zuma] will do everything that we tell him to do”.