PETER BRUCE: The price of writing about the Guptas

 Atul Gupta outside his home in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Atul Gupta outside his home in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Two years ago, I wrote two columns I’m proud of. One was headlined “How to buy a mine for next to nothing“, and detailed how the Gupta family, aided by criminals in the Eskom management and at the Department of Mineral Resources, would buy the Optimum coal mine from Glencore by using that mine’s normally untouchable rehabilitation fund. I was right. That fund now rests illegally in the Bank of Baroda.

The second column was headlined, “What Zuma still has to break to win”. The answer was — the Treasury and the Reserve Bank.

Within weeks, he had fired Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister, tried to replace him with a useful Gupta idiot, Des van Rooyen, and been forced to retreat and beg Pravin Gordhan to return. Now he has another useful Gupta idiot, Malusi Gigaba, at the Treasury, so that job is done. And if you thought Gigaba was going to be a danger to the Treasury, his deputy, Sfiso Buthelezi, is of so low an intellect, he will do even more damage.

Zuma’s choice as public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, has turned her sights clumsily on the Reserve Bank’s policy independence, supported by the said Buthelezi. The Reserve Bank governor will resist, in court, but ultimately politicians always beat central bankers when the play gets rough. So, don’t hold your breath.

I tell you this because it turns out that for about a week in September 2016, while the Guptas were still cocky (that is, before the e-mails about them leaked), they had me followed and secretly photographed: my wife and I leaving the house for our early morning walk with our dogs, me having coffee with friends in Parkview, me visiting the offices of psychologists as I looked for help for one of my family, me visiting a business to order custom-made collars for the dogs. When the owner walked me back to my car and gave me a goodbye hug, they photographed that too.

I was unaware of all of this, but a first clue of Gupta involvement emerged in January, when Andile Mngxitama, a luckless land reformer who has found some succour under the Gupta wing, tweeted to me that “you going to get a heart attack Peter; better prepare yourself”. The Guptas had shown him the surveillance.

Mngxitama is at least real and consistent. But a month later, one of the Gupta army of tweet “bots” created by the UK public relations firm hired to burnish the Gupta image, Bell Pottinger, was entirely more threatening: “I’ve heard you are mentally sick and you see psychiatric ever week. Pls confirm,” tweeted @France4u1. When I relayed this to Atul Gupta, asking if he approved, the bot responded: “And what about you cheating on your wife? Is that also a country issue? Will expose you in full! Watch the space.”

This is the price of writing about the Guptas, especially Atul, who “looks after” the media. Since those threats, the Gupta e-mails have sewaged out into the public, clearly creating panic among the Guptas. Last week, my phone fairly exploded as my “exposure in full”, my “heart attack”, came to pass. A site called had invented a story about me cheating on my wife with the dog-collar lady. Accompanied by pictures of the surveillance, our address and ID numbers, my children’s identities, the dog-collar lady’s address and phone number.

I have been a journalist for 45 years and I have never knowingly once invaded anyone’s privacy and I never would, not even a Gupta privacy.

But what was done to me was a criminal act and I will obviously seek legal advice on how, or even if, to proceed. I understand that there are limits. One of the people who created the story about me and placed it on the new site was a former Gupta employee, reportedly a relative, now working safely in India.

But while the legal possibilities are limited, I can still write what I like. As the Gupta e-mail leaks have shown, nothing happens without the brothers agreeing to it. I have no doubt they approved and paid for my surveillance and that they have paid for the construction of the wmcleaks website and continue to pay for the promotion of the story on Google.

By the way, wmcleaks is in every detail a copy of a site called Black Opinion, which is Mngxitama’s vehicle. The Guptas are generous friends. They gave Thabo Mbeki’s gatekeeper, Essop Pahad, a magazine to run more than a decade ago.

There’s also no doubt that the Guptas run a private intelligence network in SA, probably with assistance from the state’s own intelligence agencies. They track their critics and leading bankers. The fact that their investigators are incompetent is neither here nor there.

The Guptas, though, remain cowardly thieves. Should I be scared? Surveillance means they can get close.

Sorry your little smear failed, Atul. I will try and make it up to you. This column has a maximum of two-and-a-half years more to run. I will do my best to give you a mention in it every week.