Avoiding the courts like the plague, Oakbay's bid to "dispel the myths" serves only to show them up for what they are - untrustworthy. And by saying "untrustworthy", I am being polite. When Oakbay Investments CEO Nazeem Howa called journalists into a room at the JSE last week to "dispel some of the myths that have been built up about our group", he had no intention of sharing any information at all. Instead, this was another extension of the futile public relations exercise to pressur e the banks into re-opening the accounts they closed due to some shad y dealings by the group.
Howa oversees Gupta-owned companies Oakbay Resources & Energy, JIC Mining, Tegeta Exploration & Resources, Sahara Computers,The New Age newspaper and TV station ANN7.
The first question that came Howa’s way would have been a harmless one, had it been directed at any other company executive who had nothing to hide: how many newspapers does The New Age sell (as opposed to free copies it gives away)?
This media company is the only one in SA to not be part of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which reports and publishes newspaper and magazine sales.
Howa feigned ignorance. When I pointed out that the editor-in-chief of The New Age, Moegsien Williams, and managing editor Gary Naidoo were metres away and could effortlessly answer the question, I was accused of being aggressive.
All other questions on Oakbay companies’ dealings were met with less than frank answers, always preceded by, "we have done nothing wrong".
Then came what should rank as the biggest piece of corporate fiction delivered before a live audience: "We received the first letter [from Absa] in December last year, just saying it is closing our accounts. Other banks followed days later. There was no request for information from us, there was no process. They just told us they were closing the accounts," said Howa.
And he was not joking.
I had spoken to a senior executive of one of the banks that day. The bank in question had started to demand information and remedies on some questionable transactions going through the accounts of Gupta-owned companies in December 2014.
Two other bankers told me they had written to the Guptas about some dodgy deals going through the accounts, which would expose their banks under anti-money laundering and anti-bribery laws.
While claiming to be sharing information on his dealings with the banks, Howa expressed regret on having read a letter from Standard Bank on TV showCarte Blanche. "That was one of the major mistakes I made, reading out that letter," he said.
So much for trying to clear the air and be transparent.
In the letter, Standard Bank pointed out that the company had potentially broken at least four laws through its activities in the accounts.
After vainly appealing to all and sundry, including the public and politicians who have no authority to order banks around, Howa now says he’s going to try have the accounts reopened.
Except he is in no mood to engage on why the accounts were closed in the first place. When, like finance minister Pravin Gordhan, I asked why he didn’t appeal to the courts — the only institution that can force the banks to do business with him — Howa gave this gem of an answer: "We concentrated on saving the [claimed 7 991] jobs in the companies."
Again, he said that with quite a straight face.
I understand court cases can be quite inconvenient. But Howa and his Gupta bosses would no doubt have read the supreme court of appeal’s judgment in a 2010 case between Standard Bank and John Bredenkamp.
The bank had closed those accounts because, among other reasons, Bredenkamp was a "crony" of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, and he had provided financial and logistical support to his regime.
The decision was upheld by the appeal court, which awarded punitive costs against Bredenkamp, who had insisted on having his accounts reopened.