A human rights lawyer yesterday told the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture how 300 000 Gupta family e-mails detailing the extent of corruption in the country were obtained from two whistleblowers who left the country a year ago in fear for their safety.
In what he described as “a cloak-and-dagger operation”, Brian Currin told how he met two men, referred to as Stan and John, who blew the lid on massive alleged corruption that involved the Gupta brothers, Duduzane Zuma and high-level ANC politicians, as well as bosses of state-owned enterprises and their associates during the Jacob Zuma presidency.
“South Africa today owes a big debt to Stan and John, without whom this commission would not have been possible,” he said.
For Currin, it all began in February 2017 when a friend approached him for advice on how to deal with a trove of e-mails stored on a hard drive in the possession of an acquaintance.
“When I began to engage with [them] they were fearful,” he said. “Stan … desperately needed help on how to deal with the information in their possession.
“Because of my prior work with Lawyers for Human Rights, where I dealt with witness protection during the 1980s and 1990s, I had experience in dealing with people like Eugene de Kock and Dirk Coetzee,” said Currin.
When he first met Stan, “he was visibly nervous and felt uncomfortable talking to me because he was meeting me for the first time. He told me the hard drive was safe, in possession of a trusted friend.
“Stan was justifiably afraid due to the political environment in the country at the time. He begged me to help get him and his family out of the country. We needed to build mutual trust.”
Beside two original hard drives, Stan promised Currin two compact discs (CDs) which he had downloaded.
Stan wanted the sensitive information on the alleged Gupta graft to be publicly revealed in the media and for organs of civil society to establish a structure “to confront those who were corrupt”. But that had to be done only after Stan, John and their families had left the country.
“We asked Stan to make the CDs available, which he did the next day … the information needed to be authenticated. We saw the e-mails as genuine.
“We discussed surrendering this evidence to law enforcement agencies and to government. But agreed it would not be the route to follow because we could not trust [them] with such information.”
While on a drive to raise funds for the whistleblowers to leave the country, Currin was handed the two hard drives and CDs.
“The hard drives were password-protected. Stan would not provide me with the password until there was money for them to leave the country.
“We agreed that none of us should be in possession while in South Africa. I decided to take one abroad in case of a swoop and gave another to Mark Haywood of the Save South Africa Campaign, whom I had asked to help with the fundraising,” said Currin.
It was then agreed to go the media route and Section27’s Mark Heywood was contacted to help. Heywood then contacted Daily Maverick editor Branko Brkic. However, it had been agreed that Stan, John, and their families would have to leave the country before the emails were made public.
The publication was planned for September last year, with journalists assuming a foreign location to prevent raids by law enforcement. However, in May the same year, the Sunday Times newspaper broke the story, leaving the two whistleblowers fearing for their lives and that of their loved ones as they were still in the country.
Sympathisers then raised funds for the whistleblowers to leave and start their new lives outside South Africa.
“In both Stan and John’s minds, they were certain they will never return to South Africa. They were not confident that the outcome [of releasing Gupta emails] would be a political change that would establish this commission. They both needed sufficient funds so that they can begin to build new careers, family lives outside of South Africa. We had agreed that a period of two years would give them an opportunity to establish themselves [overseas] and see which way the wind blows in South Africa,” said Currin.
Brkic and M&Gs AmaBhungane assembled a team of investigative journalists who spent days and nights going through the 300,000 emails that became known as the #GuptaLeaks, and from which a picture of state capture by the Guptas and their associates emerged.
Currin said Stan, John, and their families left South Africa between June and July last year.
The hard drives are now in possession of the commission and safely stored.
Currin has told the commission the whistleblowers were encouraged by a change of guard in presidency and the appointment of Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo as “positive indicators of a credible, inquisitory judicial process with which to engage”.
– email@example.com, additional reporting by ANA