Rajesh and Atul Gupta, two of three brothers from Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, who established an extensive business empire in South Africa in less than two decades, were arrested by the Dubai authorities on June 2. The action against them was in response to the request by South Africa that Rajesh and Atul be extradited to face corruption charges. Media reports indicate that the whereabouts of the third brother Ajay are unknown. Legal proceedings in Dubai will now commence against the arrested brothers so that they are extradited to South Africa to face the law. On their part the Gupta brothers have denied any wrong doing.
The Gupta family’s business success in South Africa is the stuff of legends. One of the brothers went to South Africa in the early 1990s to explore business opportunities. He set up a company to market computers. That was a time when South Africa was undergoing fundamental changes. The apartheid era was coming to an end and in the first all ethnic groups election held in 1994 the African National Congress (ANC) won under the leadership of the one of the icons of the 20th century—Nelson Mandela. Mandela who was released in 1990 after spending 27 years in prison had wisely negotiated with the atrocious regime the transition from apartheid to a multi-racial South Africa. Mandela was beyond temptation but not so his companions. Consequently, a somewhat permissive climate of self-aggrandisement began slowly under the patronage of some ANC leaders. One of them was the ANC strongman Jacob Zuma who developed a nexus with business people.
It is alleged that the Gupta brothers began to operate in this ‘free’ climate and soon fostered mutually beneficial contacts with South African politicians. Consequently, their business interests expanded beyond the sale of computers into mining, real estate, transportation and media. Reports also claim that their fortunes really took off after a connection developed between Jacob Zuma and them starting with the early 2000s. The Zuma-Gupta brothers relationship began to truly flourish when the ANC leader became South Africa’s President in 2007, a position he retained for a decade. There were rumblings in the ANC as well in business circles that the Gupta brothers had overwhelming influence over Zuma and through him on the government; some of Zuma’s children were also close business associates of the brothers.
The South African state prosecutor presented a report in 2016 claiming that the Gupta brothers were part of a process during the Zuma presidency of subverting state institutions and public sector companies. Meanwhile some ANC leaders claimed that the Gupta brothers’ influence could also be seen in some political appointments made by Zuma. All this led the state prosecutor to recommend the appointment of a committee to investigate these allegations. Zuma resisted this recommendation but the South African Constitutional Court ruled that the state prosecutor’s suggestion was binding on the President. Consequently, on the advice of the Chief Justice of South Africa a commission under the chairmanship of Judge Raymond Zondo was appointed in 2018 to investigate the allegations of ‘state capture’ during Zuma’s presidency; the role of the Gupta brothers was a part of this inquiry.
Zuma had to leave the office of President and the brothers fled South Africa. They are reported to have come to India at first but later moved to Dubai. In March 2018 the brothers premises in Saharanpur and Dehra Dun were raided by the Income Tax department. Clearly, the Indian government did not wish to give a perception to the South African authorities that the Gupta brothers will be protected in India. This was a wise move.
Dubai is now a flourishing entrepot. It has also become a major financial centre. The ruling Sheikhs have guided the successful enrichment of the emirate through a system where business is easily done though social and political order is maintained with a heavy but unobtrusive hand. The business and financial climate has been somewhat permissive. Now with a greater scrutiny of international financial flows, including for proceeds of corruption, the Dubai authorities are showing greater sensitivity toward requests for extradition of high worth persons who have been given visas for long term stay in the emirate. Hence, their responsiveness to the South African request in respect of the Gupta brothers.
It remains to be seen if Rajesh and Atul Gupta will finally be put on a plane for South Africa. This is because ultimately extradition is not only a judicial process but a political one too. All governments allow their own and other nationals to appeal to the courts against executive decisions allowing extradition. However, international experience shows that when governments truly want to oblige a foreign country and extradite a wanted person, they find a way of doing so. Thus, the plea that the courts are not allowing extradition is really an excuse. Ironically, it is also true that sometimes a country asking for a wanted person to be extradited to face the law is only going through the motions and in fact does not want the person to return to face the law.
Thus, extradition of alleged criminals is part of the larger relationship between countries. It is likely to remain so despite all international conventions against terrorism, criminal acts and corruption. Bilateral and multilateral agreements are therefore merely enabling documents which provide a legal basis for action. There enforcement depends on the nature of relations between the concerned states. This situation is not unlikely to change.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.