By Norimitsu Onishi and Selam Gebrekidan
An Indian family rose to the heights of power and fortune in South Africa with the help of eager officials in the legendary party of Nelson Mandela.
SAHARANPUR, India — India’s most influential guru joined thousands of believers four years ago as the temple’s first stone was set in the ground.
It was a glorious day for its builders, the Gupta brothers, the sons of a local shopkeeper who had risen, almost magically, to become one of the richest families a world away in South Africa.
The three brothers had flown back on their private jet to start work on the temple, a 125-foot monument of pink sandstone and white marble that would tower over the tiny place where their father used to ride his bicycle to pray every day.
But one morning last month, as the sun struggled to break through the smog in Saharanpur, their hometown in India’s north, the giant yellow crane raising the temple stood still — in limbo, like the brothers themselves.
The Guptas are now in self-imposed exile in Dubai, evading arrest in South Africa, where they stand at the center of a scandal that has already brought down the nation’s president and exposed staggering amounts of corruption in the once-legendary party of Nelson Mandela.
Even here in India, the family’s legacy — so large that it has been elevated to myth — faces collapse. The new temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva in their father’s honor, is now being investigated for the same kind of self-dealing and fraud the family is accused of mastering in South Africa.
The rise and fall of the Gupta brothers is so improbable that in Saharanpur their story is told like a parable.
They began by selling shoes in South Africa and swiftly became central figures in the nation’s post-apartheid history, outsiders who broke into the very pinnacle of political power. Seemingly overnight, they joined the ranks of South Africa’s most influential families, playing a leading role in one of the biggest dramas after the end of apartheid: Who is getting rich, and how?
Mr. Mandela’s election as president in 1994 set off a scramble by leaders in his party, the African National Congress, to amass wealth. The early ones succeeded through ties with rich white South Africans. Many others turned to the brothers from Saharanpur.
The Guptas found eager partners at all levels of the A.N.C., from bureaucrats to a sitting president, Jacob Zuma, according to dozens of interviews by The New York Times, as well as government investigators, international auditors, emails from a Gupta company, financial records and court documents.
Seizing on a chance encounter with a South African official in India decades ago, the three brothers cultivated ties to the governing party so expertly that it became difficult to draw the line between their business empire and the president’s office.
They made one of Mr. Zuma’s sons a business partner, enabling them to buy a coal mine through government intervention and set up a media business that the president helped guide himself, according to officials, company emails and people involved in the ventures. The president responded in kind, handing them control over strategic cabinet selections and the boards of state-owned enterprises.
The Guptas recruited other senior A.N.C. officials by giving them secret cuts of lucrative contracts from the state’s utility and rail companies, government investigators say. They acted as fixers for multinational companies, like the German software giant SAP, which paid them kickbacks in return for government business, documents show.
Even in far-flung rural corners of South Africa, they found A.N.C. officials ready to divert money meant to help the poor.
Now desperate to distance themselves from the brothers, A.N.C. leaders dismiss the family as a legacy of the tainted era of Mr. Zuma, who was ousted in February by his own party.
But the story of the Guptas — who landed in the country a year before the end of apartheid in 1994 and left with Mr. Zuma’s fall — is also the story of South Africa under the A.N.C.
The main agent of corruption was the party itself. A.N.C. leaders have siphoned off tens of billions of dollars meant to improve the lives of their most loyal supporters, poor black South Africans.
They have crippled strong government agencies, like the national tax service, to benefit their own bank accounts. Some of the nation’s new leaders — the A.N.C. officials promising a new chapter for the country now that Mr. Zuma is out of office — have pocketed money intended for basic services, like schools.
A.N.C. politicians have even taken to assassinating fellow party members to cover up corruption, leading some officials to liken the party to a Mafia.
“The Guptas were so egregious and big-time that they are a story on their own,” said R.W. Johnson, a historian of South Africa. “But the thing that amazes is that this is only 20 years on from an African nationalist revolution, and here are all these guys happily selling their country down the river.”
As with other outsiders, including big corporations like KPMG, the Guptas helped undermine the nation’s democratic institutions. And like generations of foreigners before them, they took their windfall out of Africa, moving it to Dubai and India through a maze of dubious, and at times illegal, transactions, officials say.
They flew everywhere: across oceans in their own planes, to their own helipad here in Saharanpur, to Hindu temples in the Himalayas.
And they became so powerful that they clashed with the Oppenheimers — the family that once owned the De Beers diamond company and the mining giant Anglo American — whose influence in South Africa had been unrivaled for a century.
But as the Guptas brandished their power, they incited a backlash, not only from ordinary South Africans, but also from a far more powerful constituency: the white-led business establishment and its allies, both increasingly worried that the brothers were putting the country’s economic health at risk.
The Guptas’ intimate role in steering the nation helped set off an electoral revolt that has already cost the A.N.C. control over South Africa’s biggest cities and could jeopardize its hold on the presidency.
From his self-imposed exile in Dubai, Ajay Gupta, 53, the oldest brother, denies all wrongdoing. As newcomers to South Africa, he said, he and his brothers have been turned into scapegoats.
He points out that they face no criminal charges in South Africa, adding that their family empire is now bankrupt.
But nothing angers him more than the temple.
Far more than a gift to their hometown and a testament to their humble beginnings, the $28 million Shivadham Temple is now being investigated by the Indian authorities as the cornerstone of an elaborate scheme to launder “illicit money” from the Gupta fortune in South Africa.
“It’s a 1,000 percent lie,” Mr. Gupta said in his first extensive interview since fleeing South Africa. “I’ll kill the person and I’ll kill myself before I use a cent for this kind of a thing.”
It all started with a few shirts.
The father of the Gupta brothers, Shiv Kumar Gupta, owned a tiny shop that sold government rations, or subsidized food, here in Saharanpur. He was a pious, somewhat idiosyncratic man, who tossed bread to stray dogs from the basket of his bicycle on his way to the old temple every day, and he often spent nights meditating in its crematory.
Frontpage August 15, 2019