A South African corporate reputation management company owner declined to meet Atul Gupta at his Saxonwold home because she “feared being photographed going into the home of the controversial businessman”.
This has emerged in the Gupta e-mails, widely leaked to the media and currently being examined by The Citizen.
Janine Hills, founder and CEO of Vuma Reputation Management, apologised in an e-mail to Atul for not attending the meeting, explaining: “We as a company are aware that the media are monitoring your home and feeding media info,” she wrote.
In an interview with The Citizen, Hills did not deny doing work for the Guptas, but emphasised she had concentrated on the corporate side through Oakbay Investments, which was listed on the JSE.
“We received a call from Nazeem [Howa, the former CEO of Oakbay], whom I had known from former media days at the Independent Group,” Hills said.
Howa apparently told Hills that Oakbay needed help. Hills said she found Oakbay had no media training, no reputation management tool kit, no overview of the organisation and no profiles of company individuals.
On June 8, 2015, Vuma was appointed on a six-month contract.
“I only met Atul once,” said Hills. “A hell of a nice guy, as Atul can only be. Charming.” She only worked through Howa and Williams, she said.
“Did I go to every single meeting? No, absolutely not. Did we make recommendations, saying where’s your social responsibility? You are mining in areas … you need to be giving back to a community; that was part of the recommendations we would make,” Hill said.
But at the beginning of July, the cracks in the façade of respectability around the Gupta family were beginning to show under a barrage of media enquiries into the Guptas’ affairs.
Then, at the end of October that year, a bombshell was dropped in Vuma’s weekly status report to Oakbay: “Sunday Times and Sunday Independent both gave feedback in the past week that they are not prepared to accept editorial from The New Age/Moegsien Williams.”
This, said Hills, was when she realised she wasn’t going to achieve her goal of presenting an ethical company to the public.
“Why did we take it on? I didn’t want to judge anyone. I knew Nazeem, I knew Moegsien,” Hill said.
Hills said in the six months, Vuma had received R812 592 for their efforts, confirmed by the bank statement seen by The Citizen. After the withdrawal of Vuma, the Guptas, Howa and Oakbay appear to have engaged British PR firm Bell Pottinger, which helped craft the toxic “white monopoly capital” narrative.