Picture: Iqbal Survee – David Harrison, M&G

The Gupta family is “fighting tooth and nail” for a large stake in Independent Media, South Africa’s
oldest and one of its most prominent newspaper companies.

The dispute centres on a pact that
the company’s chairperson, Iqbal
Survee, made with the Guptas in
2012, when a consortium he led was negotiating to buy the
newspaper group.

Surve conditionally offered
the Guptas a stake that would
have amounted to 27.5% of the
Independent group.

Under the agreement, the Guptas would also have appointed
Independent’s top managers, well
placed sources told amaBhungane.

But the deal was not consummated and for the better part of three years, the Guptas and Surve have been locked in a dispute that
included a protracted secret arbitration process.

The fight has now moved to the North Gauteng
High Court, where Oakbay Investments – the Gupta
family’s holding company – is suing Surve, a
company in the Sekunjalo group and an accountant
linked to the arbitration.

The Gupta family, which has been publicly accused of abusing its relationship with President
Jacob Zuma, already owns The New Age newspaper
group and TV station ANN7.

A company in the Sekunjalo group has been engaged in a protracted legal battle with Oakbay Investments”

In 2012, Surve and his Sekunjalo group led a
broad-based consortium that bought Independent from its Irish owners for R2-billion.

The deal was supported by the Public Investment Corporation, which said in Parliament this week that it committed R888-million on the
premise that the new, black owners would attract a bigger
share of state advertising.

But, according to the
investment corporation’s
presentation to MPs: “This increased spen[d] by government
[has] not materialised yet.”

Companies linked to the
Chinese government also took a
20% stake in the newspaper group.

The political nature of the transaction sparked public controversy, but what
was not known at the time was that Surve gave the
Guptas’ Oakbay a conditional option to take half of
his consortium’s 55% stake in the newspaper house.

What value the Guptas brought in return for their
option is unclear.

This week, Surve’s lawyer Adam Ismail confirmed
the dispute, saying: “A company in the Sekunjalo
group has been engaged in a protracted legal battle
with Oakbay Investments.”

“Surve and the Sekunjalo group are of the emphatic view that Oakbay Investments has no legal right to any shares in the Independent Media”

Ismail said the arbitration was “but one chapter
in a legal tussle spanning almost three years now”.

A number of sources told amaBhungane that Surve had lost a first round of arbitration.

Despite this, Ismail said: “Surve and the Sekunjalo
group are of the emphatic view that Oakbay
Investments has no legal right to any shares in the
Independent Media.

“The legal battle continues, having now moved to
the high court. As the matter is sub judice at this
stage, Dr Surve does not want to say too much.”

Ismail declined to share the court papers or
reveal further details.

At court, amaBhungane was able to identify a 2015
case in which Oakbay Investments is suing “Firer, S”
and three others, but the file could not be found.

Steven Firer, an accountant with audit firm Nkonki,
confirmed that it was him but said that he “cannot
give details until the court issues are dealt with”.

Several sources agreed that the other defendants
included Surve and a Sekunjalo group company.

“Expert witness and consultant”

Firer’s LinkedIn profile describes him as an “expert witness and consultant in commercial
disputes, particularly those involving issues of
application of International Financial Reporting
Standards and International Standards on Auditing,
valuations and financial analysis”.

It is understood that he played a role in the
Oakbay-Sekunjalo arbitration, helping to assess what
the Guptas should pay for their would-be stake.

It is understood that Oakbay is now suing Firer
because it argues his valuation was much too high.

AmaBhungane’s sources said that, as a major
shareholder, the Public Investment Corporation this
month told those involved that it did not favour the
Guptas’ attempts to grab part of Independent. Its
spokesperson Sekgoela Sekgoela declined to comment.

In 2013, Surve told Bloomberg that the
investment corporation said it “won’t allow” the
Guptas a stake in Independent.

Ismail said: “Dr Surve also wishes to make it
clear that Oakbay and the Gupta family provided
no assistance [financial or otherwise] whatsoever in
the acquisition of Independent Media.

“Dr Surve does wish to point out that Oakbay
Investments was also a bidder for the Independent
Media when it was up for sale in 2012/2013
and that such bid by Oakbay was unsuccessful.

“Dr Surve also wishes to point out that the
Sekunjalo Group has no other business dealings
with Oakbay or the Gupta family.”

Oakbay spokesperson Yolanda Zondo said: “We
are not able to comment on this matter as doing so
would be in breach of a confidentiality agreement.”

The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism produced this story. Like it? Be an amaB supporter and help us do more. Know more? Send us
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