Former transport minister details undue pressure from Tony Gupta for rail contract

FILE PICTURE: Ben Martins. Picture: Refilwe Modise.

FILE PICTURE: Ben Martins. Picture: Refilwe Modise.

Martins conceded that he interacted with the Gupta family over a period of several years.

Deputy Public Enterprises Minister Ben Martins on Wednesday told the parliamentary inquiry into Eskom that Tony Gupta threatened court action when he failed to subvert the tender process for new trains for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa).

Martins conceded that he interacted with the Gupta family over a period of several years, but claimed that a meeting he organised between Tony Gupta and the then CEO of Prasa, Lucky Montana, in 2012, was intended purely to discourage his demands that the tender process be reopened and the board of the agency be changed to facilitate this.

“I told him it was my understanding that the tender had run its course,” he recalled was his response to Gupta’s approach.

Martins, who was transport minister at the time, said he then organised a meeting with Montana and that they were later joined by Gupta and President Jacob Zuma’s son, Duduzane. The meeting took place at Martins’s private home, but he rejected suggestions from MPs that this was inappropriate.

He was also at pains to point out that at the time, the Gupta family were simply businessmen of moderate means and not yet, in the public’s view, “corruption incarnate” with a fortune of billions amassed through alleged illicit dealings with state-owned companies.

“In 2012, the public perception of the Gupta family was not what it is today.”

Martins said he arranged the meeting so that Tony Gupta could hear from Montana that the tender process had indeed been fair and had been concluded, so that he could reconsider his threat to rush to court.

“I saw nothing untoward in arranging this meeting as its aim was to clarify and give answers, I did not at any stage ask Mr Montana to irregularly or unlawfully influence anything,” he said.

Economic Freedom Fighters MP Marshall Dlamini asked Martins whether he was surprised to see Gupta arrive with the president’s son in tow. He replied that he was not because it was well known that they were business associates, adding that therefore he saw no reason to inform the Cabinet or president.

On Tuesday, the inquiry heard a different version from Montana who said he was shocked that Martins had created the impression that it was him who had introduced Martins to Tony Gupta. Martins said Montana had misunderstood.

Montana testified that he had realised during a business trip to Berlin that there was a vast drive to corrupt the train procurement process and that the Guptas were an active part of this.

Martins said after Montana reported this to him, he chastised Tony Gupta for creating a false impression that he was in on the deal.

Gupta responded defensively, he said.

He dropped a further bombshell in telling the committee conducting the inquiry that in 2013, Gupta again approached him to ask that guests to a family wedding be allowed to land at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport and be hosted at a welcoming function. He testified that he declined but suggested that instead they approach the smaller Pilanesberg airport.

The Democratic Alliance’s Natasha Mazzone asked why he did not report the inappropriate approach to the police’s elite Hawks unit.

But Martins said he had no intention of helping the family to circumvent normal customs processes, and had simply suggested the Pilanesberg airport because it was less busy than the country’s main airport and was accustomed to accommodating requests of this kind.

The Gupta family eventually used the military’s Waterkloof Air Force base to land a jet carrying wedding guests, triggering a scandal in which officials suggested that they were following indirect instructions from Zuma.

Martins strongly contradicted testimony from Eskom’s suspended legal head Suzanne Daniels that he was present at a meeting where another Gupta brother indicated he would press the office of the deputy judge president to manipulate court dates in the legal challenge to the pension payout to former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe for political reasons.

“Why should I be placed at a meeting where I was not?” he asked.

Last year, he responded to her testimony by calling her a liar and the inquiry a “kangaroo court”.

On Wednesday, he was rebuked for this by the chairwoman of the inquiry, Zukiswa Rantho, who said the remark was insulting and demanded an apology.

– African News Agency (ANA)

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