By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa’s wealthy Gupta family, which has been accused of holding undue political sway over President Jacob Zuma, said on Saturday it planned to dispose of all stakes it holds in South African businesses before the end of the year.
The Guptas have denied accusations that they have used their friendship with Zuma to influence his decisions or advance their business interests. But South Africa’s anti-corruption watchdog said in July it would get more funds to investigate whether Zuma allowed the family to make government appointments.
In a statement, the Gupta family said “we now believe the time is right for us to exit our shareholding of the South African businesses” and it believed the move would benefit current employees.
“As such, we announce today our intention to sell all of our shareholding in South Africa by the end of the year. We are already in discussions with several international prospective buyers,” the statement said.
The prominent business family is accused of being behind Zuma’s abrupt sacking of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in December, a move that rattled investor confidence and triggered calls for the president’s resignation.
The scandal surrounding the Guptas took a dramatic turn earlier this year after deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas said the family had offered him his boss’s job.
Zuma has said that the Guptas are his friends but denied doing anything improper. The Guptas have also denied making job offers to anyone in government.
The three Gupta brothers moved to South Africa from India at the end of apartheid rule in the mid-1990s and went on to build a business empire that stretches from technology to the media to mining.
A family spokesman told the Gupta-owned ANN7 news channel that the decision to divest from South Africa had “been on the cards” since April, when the brothers had resigned from the directorships of their companies.
He also said the family planned to stay in South Africa.
In a statement, the family said it “had been a victim of a political campaign … A narrative has been constructed against us, which has been perpetuated by many media titles, and that flawed perception has become the truth in the eyes of some.”
“We have no interest in politics, only business.”
The Gupta family’s assets in South Africa would include its holding company Oakbay Investments, which controls Johannesburg-listed Oakbay Resources. They also own the New Age newspaper and the ANN7 news network.
Oakbay Investments chief executive Nazeem Howa said the company would remain rooted in South Africa. “Oakbay Investments will continue in South Africa, they (the Guptas) are just selling their shareholding,” he told the eNCA news channel.
The company does not have an easy operating environment in South Africa. All four of the country’s major banks have severed links with it. Analysts have said the banks were likely prompted by concerns about reputational risk and if the Guptas are no longer part of Oakbay, that risk may diminish.
South African markets were rattled again this week by news that current Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, had been summoned by an elite police unit known as “the Hawks” over an investigation into a suspected rogue spy unit in the tax service.
Political pundits have said Gordhan is being undermined by a faction allied to Zuma. On Friday, South African police denied being part of a conspiracy targeting Gordhan, City Press newspaper reported, after the opposition described the investigation into him as a “witch-hunt”.
(Editing by Ros Russell/Mark Heinrich)