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Gupta appointment ‘suspicious’ – DC


Bongiwe Zihlangu

THE recent appointment of South African media and mining tycoon, Atul Gupta, as Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s special advisor and issuance with a diplomatic passport, has been heavily criticised by the main opposition Democratic Congress (DC).

In an interview with the Sunday Express, former Government Secretary Tlohang Sekhamane, who is the party’s Member of Parliament (MP) for Mokhotlong constituency, described Mr Gupta’s appointment as “something that is unheard of”, adding his being issued with a diplomatic passport was against the country’s laws as he was not a Lesotho citizen.

The Prime Minister’s Press Secretary, Thabo Thakalekoala, confirmed to this paper when we first broke the story last month, that Dr Thabane had appointed three foreign nationals to market the country abroad in a bid to source investment.

According to Mr Thakalekoala, the trio had also been issued with Lesotho diplomatic passports, which he said would give them credibility as they market Lesotho internationally.

Although Mr Thakalekoala did not reveal all the names of the trio, he said two of them had been assigned Asia and the Pacific.

The Sunday Express also established that Mr Atul Gupta was issued with a diplomatic passport on 20 June 2014, whose number is DA001645 (DA001645<3L06806145M24066190140668X847772M38).

Section 3 of the Lesotho Passports and Travel Documents Act, 1998, stipulates that a Lesotho diplomatic passport may be issued to His Majesty the King and the Queen, prime minister, ministers, judges as well as senators and MPs.

Sub-section (r) of the same Act adds: “And any other persons to be designated by the minister by notice in the Gazette.”

The premier, in a subsequent interview, also confirmed the appointment of Gupta and provision with a Lesotho diplomatic passport, adding he had been introduced to the wealthy family by South African President Jacob Zuma.

According to Mr Sekhamane who was GS under former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s administration from 2002 to 2012 and was the Ministry of Education Principal Secretary (PS) before then, never had he seen or heard, throughout his tenure, of foreign special advisors being engaged and issued with diplomatic passports.

“In my 10 years as GS and back when I was PS, never has there been anything like this,” Mr Sekhamane said.

“Never did my former PM try to engage a foreign advisor, let alone an advisor.”

Mr Sekhamane added in his 10 years as GS, he had rubbed shoulders with cabinet/government secretaries from across Africa via an association that he founded but “even then, I never heard of any government engaging such an advisor”.

“A country would rather engage the services of a consultant who is an expert in a particular field,” Mr Sekhamane said.

“What doesn’t happen the world over is for an individual who is not a native of a country, to be issued a diplomatic passport, unless such a person is first granted citizenship in order to become an official advisor.”

Mr Sekhamane also argued regular, official and diplomatic passports are only restricted to a country’s citizens.

The former GS also said Mr Gupta’s appointment, by virtue of his being from a controversial family, especially due to their “questionable” links with Zuma, “will not bring Lesotho any benefits”.

“I suspect this is solely for the PM to get what he wants through these people, not for the country’s gain,” Mr Sekhamane said.

“Even the secretive manner in which this whole thing is being dealt with is suspicious; it’s shrouded in a lot of secrecy.

“The controversy surrounding the Gupta family leads one to suspect that Mr Gupta’s engagement is not for the country, but for the family to benefit the PM.”

Mr Sekhamane also condemned Dr Thabane for leaving Mr Thakalekoala to confirm the appointment of the three ‘special advisors’, insisting the PM should have “consulted the country’s leaders before making such a decision”.

“When the PM realised the controversy his decision had the potential to create, he should have come out publicly to defend himself, and quell people’s fears,” Mr Sekhamane.

Last year, the Guptas landed a chartered jet full of wedding guests, at Waterkloof Air Force Base, without anyone seeming to know who had authorised the landing. The guests had come to attend the wedding of Vega Gupta, the daughter of the Guptas’ only sister, Achla.

With their politically-connected business interests, the family has earned the ire of many in South Africa.

Sources, who spoke to the Sunday Express on condition of anonymity, have claimed that in return for representing Lesotho abroad, the Guptas are looking to expand their mining and media interests to Lesotho.

According to the sources, through their New Age media company, the Guptas are looking to establish a daily newspaper in Lesotho, a market with only weekly newspapers.

Contacted for comment to establish if Mr Gupta’s diplomatic passport had been published in the gazette as per the requirement of the law, the Ministry of Home Affairs Principal Secretary, Ranthomeng Matete, would not discuss the issue, and instead, questioned this journalist about the source of the information.

“Let us cross that bridge first and establish if you have the authority to possess such information. Only then can we get into your question,” Chief Matete said.

The PS added it had become a serious concern that confidential information was being leaked to the media and that government no longer had privacy.

“Confidential government information is being passed on or shared like an apple and this is a very serious concern. We are investigating to establish how information is being leaked,” Chief Matete said.

Questions forwarded to the e-mail address of Mr Gupta’s personal aide, one Mandisa two weeks ago, have not been responded to.

Attempts to talk to Mandisa have also hit a brick-wall as she is always said to be in a meeting each time this reporter calls.

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