The confiscation of luxury homes from the Gupta family, who are accused of playing a key role in the state’s conquest, has put the controversial family back in the spotlight.
The family exercised considerable political influence during the years that Jacob Zuma was President of SA and famously landed an airliner full of wedding guests at Waterkloof Air Power Base.
But that was in stark contrast to their humble beginnings. In 2011, The Sunday Times sent a reporter to Saharanpur, India, to trace these humble origins. This is what he discovered…
A stray dog searches for food – a dusty, flying one – in a dark corridor leading to a nondescript block of flats in Rani Bazar, Saharanpur infested city in northern India, almost 200km from Delhi.
Several window frames are in dire need of painting. Old towels and two saris are draped over a wrought iron balustrade.
Until 1989, this 30-room building was the home of the Gupta brothers – Ajay, 45, Atul, 42, and Rajesh, 39 – who are now super-rich South African residents.
In South Africa, concerns are growing about the Guptas’ cozy relationship with President Jacob Zuma – but in Saharanpur, locals are singing the praises of a “hard-working” family and their father, Shiv Kumar Gupta.
The family patriarch, who died in 1994, and his wife Angoori, 61, lived in the building in Rani Bazar with their three sons, one daughter, Achla, 44, and various relatives.
The brothers’ uncle, Amarnath, 75, who is bedridden, and his wife, Sumitra, 74, still live in a modest apartment in the building owned by the Guptas. Amarnath’s widowed daughter-in-law, Beena Gupta, 50, lives with her three children in a four-bedroom apartment in the same building.
They lived in relatively remote Saharanpur, where Shiv Kumar was among other things, a handful of locals a car to own.
One of his companies, Gupta and Company, specialized in the distribution of soapstone powder, a key ingredient in talcum powder.
Shiv Kumar also made money importing spices from Madagascar and Zanzibar through his Delhi-based company SKG Marketing.
And he ran five “cooperative” shops and earned commissions selling oil, rice, wheat flour and corn flour to locals who qualified for government ration cards.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Atul, the mastermind behind Sahara Computers in South Africa, said: “We never fear our origins. I’m proud of it. We come from families who don’t show or expose their business to others. It’s seen as showing off.”
Their home in India contrasts with the e brothers’ lifestyle in South Africa, where they commute between a R52 million compound in Johannesburg and Mark Thatcher’s former home in Cape Town , which went on sale for R24.5 million. Family members are escorted by bodyguards; Use a helicopter and three fixed-wing aircraft. have nine pilots at their disposal and enjoy the services of five personal chefs.
Atul said they were “fortunate that we have never had to think about money since we were born”.
< p>For years and despite the growing wealth of the Gupta family, Atul’s father cycled daily to the Shiva temple in Bada Baba Lal Dass, where he fed bread to sacred cows and stray dogs.
Shiv Kumar was known for his generosity to the poor , he often distributed thousands of meals to the needy.
Now the Gupta’s apartment in Rani Bazar is empty: when the three brothers visit Saharanpur, they live with their sister in a wealthy suburb.
< p>Beena said of the family: “I am very proud of Ajay. He is the king of Saharanpur and he is our God. He’s like a Bollywood celebrity here.”
The contrast between the brothers’ childhood and their lives today is chilling. Your children in Johannesburg are chauffeured to the best private schools; Their fathers were taken to primary school in a rickshaw.
However, when the trio attended secondary schools in India, they were accompanied by an armed guard.
Atul said, “We had no threats . It was just a precaution. As a family we generally try to be safety conscious. We were born that way.” Closed circuit security cameras.
When he finished school, the eldest brother, Ajay, completed a BCom at JV Jain Degree College. Atul and Rajesh earned a bachelor’s degree in science from the same institution.
After graduating, all three brothers commuted between Saharanpur and Delhi for about four years to take care of SKG marketing and settled settled in India’s government and commercial center in the late 1980s.
During this time Atul took courses in assembling, repairing and maintaining Apple hardware and became a computer supervisor at a Delhi printing company.
Around this time the family sent Atul to China to investigate business there. Had it worked out, the Guptas probably never would have set foot in South Africa.
Said Atul: “Ajay wanted… (but) we didn’t have many opportunities to invest in China because she just wanted, that we buy between 5% and 12% (shares) in the factory while Ajay wanted management control.”
In 1993 Atul was sent to South Africa by Shiv Kumar, who believed that “Africa would become the America of the world”.
Atul said his older brother was “a genius, a maverick”. Ajay and his father “strategized” every day. “He and my father were the same.”
< p>In 1994, the Gupta family transferred R1.2 million to an account Atul opened in South Africa, and with that money, along with other “tens of millions” later transferred by the family, he opened Correct Marketing, an import and computer and component distributors.
Around the same time he was also trying to start a chain which sold shoes imported from India, but struggled to get customers to pay. Around 1996 he sold Liberty Da Trend, the boutique he owned in Killarney Mall in Johannesburg.
“I didn’t come with money. When I asked for money, my family wired the money,” said Atul.
From a modest turnover of R1.4 million in 1994, Correct Marketing’s turnover grew to about R97 million in 1997 – the year it changed its name to Sahara Computers.
Sahara Holdings, the parent company of the various Gupta companies, has annual sales in excess of R2 billion and the companies employ approximately 10,000 people.< /p>
Atul said he was “amazed” that setting up a business in southern Africa was relatively easy “because we didn’t find any bureaucracy…”.
“I started liking South Africa.”
Meanwhile in Delhi in the early hours of the morning In the 90s, Ajay studied accountancy and began visiting South Africa from 1995.
Rajesh, who according to Atul is a ” very close friend and business partner of Zuma’s son, Duduzane, joined the Gupta businesses here in 1997.
The two younger Gupta brothers and their families have become South African citizens. Ajay, who came to the country permanently in 2003, and her mother Angoori hold Indian passports.
The Guptas have maintained their links with Saharanpur and brought the South African cricket team to the city in 2005.
Javed Sabri, the bureau chief of a local newspaper, said: “The stadium was packed that day as people came to see the South Africans.”
“Ajay has made a huge contribution to the South African economy and we are very proud of him.”
Sabri described the family as “nice, down to earth people”.
Those in Saharanpur who knew the Guptas, from politicians to lecturers and schoolmates, described Ajay as a “Bollywood star”, “a genius”, “pure in heart”, “good natured” and a supporter of the poor.
Swami Bharat Bhushan, head of Mokshayatan International Yogashram, said , Ajay took him to South Africa five years ago.
“He made me sit on his chair and said mi r then with tears in his eyes that this is where he was today because of the time he spent at t he ashram.”
Ajay also helped 60 girls from poor families in Saharanpur to get married, by donating furniture and household items to them. He built a retirement home and distributed fruit from Gupta orchards to the poor.
The Guptas believe in the extended family system and prefer to live with their mother in Johannesburg. The Saxonwold compound consists of four villas.
The main house has a grand piano in the hallway and a large photograph of Shiv Kumar hangs on one wall in the lounge. Set amongst the manicured gardens and lawns is a cricket pitch and swimming pool.
Matriarch Angoori loves to play cards with her children on Sundays.
“Ajay can cancel any meeting in his life when he and his mother play cards,” Atul said.
The three brothers do not smoke or drink alcohol. Their wives Shivani, Chetali and Arti still love to cook despite having the chefs on the team.
The brothers and sister also fulfilled their father’s wish that they only have two children each: the four siblings haben gave birth to six sons and two daughters.
Sister Achla’s son Varun, who graduated from the University of Johannesburg with a degree in electrical engineering and electronics, is an apprentice at Shiva Uranium – a company in which the family has an interest .
Achla’s daughter Vega earned a BCom from the same university.
Ajay’s son Kamal Kant is in his first year of his BCom degree and the other five Gupta children are still in school .
The family has close ties to the who’s who of Bollywood, including Shahrukh Khan who, along with his son Aryan, played cricket with the Gupta children in their garden.
Anil Kapoor , one of the stars of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, stays with the G uptas whenever he is in South Africa.
Recently the family y hosted a Twenty20 cricket match between South Africa and India at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, as well as a concert to launch their controversial newspaper.
The Guptas also own the naming rights to Newlands and Kingsmead stadiums, and count among them their friends, Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar.
But it’s their cozy relationship with Zuma and his family that makes that unease at the power the Guptas appear to wield in local business circles.
Atul confirmed that the South African President attended a Diwali event at her home in October.
“He goes and sits next to my family in the temple. This Diwali he did.”
Atul said they met Zuma “around 2002, 2003 when he was a guest at one of the annual events of the Sahara”.
But He said: “Please let us know of any unfair business practices or benefits that the Gupta family have had as a result of Zuma. We have never taken (an advantage) and we will never take (any).”
He said they also have good relations with opposition politicians. “Tell me, is there anything wrong with that? We came to this country voluntarily and believe this is the right country for the Gupta family.”
- This article was published first in the Sunday Times of February 27, 2011