Foreign investigations may step in where South Africans are too cowardly
The skeletons are falling out of the cupboard at a furious rate. In the space of two days, new allegations have arisen about the Guptas’ money laundering.
So bewildering, so frequent and so varied are these allegations it is hard to know whether these are more grist to the mill, or whether they signify an important change in the overall narrative. The simple answer is that they constitute both.
In London, British peer Peter Hain has published a letter in which he accuses HSBC of being possibly complicit in moving illicit funds between the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong.
By itself, this is nothing new. For at least a year, it has been obvious that companies associated with the Gupta family have been moving money in and out of the country with gay abandon. The banks have dutifully registered these transactions. But SA’s frozen investigating unit has forsaken its responsibilities and in perhaps the most cowardly example of state capture, has declined to even investigate, never mind prosecute.
For the Guptas and their cohorts, this latest disclosure is potentially a disaster because now not only South African banks, but international banks too are on their case
This is where the difference arises. Hain has passed on his accusations to the British treasury, which has passed on the letter to the Financial Conduct Authority, the regulator of British financial services firms, and the National Crime Agency and Serious Fraud Office. Now we have serious investigations by people with international clout. That doesn’t mean they will necessarily make a case, but it does mean the net is closing. It is important not to rely too much on the British system: it was also responsible for investigating the notorious South African arms deal, which was closed down when it cut too close to the bone.
For the Guptas and their cohorts, this latest disclosure is potentially a disaster because now not only South African banks, but international banks too are on their case.
It’s obvious why the Gupta family uses HSBC; it is one of the great international banks. But precisely those qualities make banks such as HSBC attractive to money launderers. Since the banking crisis in 2008, international banks have come under scrutiny as never before and their reputations are jealously guarded now, so it is possible that this development will open the cracks into fissures.
The second disclosure concerns the listing of Oakbay Resources & Energy on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. It has been widely suspected for years that this was a bogus listing because the valuation metrics were so skewed. But now come disclosures that this was not a quirk that had to do with a small number of shares available for trading, but allegedly the consequence of deliberate fraud.
News agency Bloomberg is reporting that the share price of Oakbay was manipulated through a simple scheme. According to the reports, the Gupta family lent $1m from bank accounts in Dubai to Unlimited Electronics & Computers (UEC) in Singapore in November 2014. That same month, UEC transferred $928,146 to the Guptas’ Oakbay Resources & Energy and the two companies had a contract entitling UEC to 18.5-million Oakbay shares at R10 per share, according to a November 20 communication that was part of the Guptaleaks e-mails.
The company sold the shares on its JSE debut in 2014, which set the share price at R10.80. As a result, the company gained a market value of more than R8bn, about 48 times its full-year revenue. It then converted a R250m Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) loan granted in 2010 into equity at a 10% discount to that massively inflated share price.
The IDC now says it was misled. It asked for and was given the assurance that UEC was not a related party.
This is all denied by the parties involved. However, it is in one respect similar to the HSBC case. By routing the transaction through Singapore, the financial authorities there could also be required to investigate. Although the Guptas are protected in SA, there is a possibility that foreign investigations will step in where the South African authorities are too cowardly to venture.