JOHANNESBURG – A pair of Indian-born businessmen known simply as the Gupta brothers, who became notorious in South Africa amid accusations that they facilitated sweeping public corruption and gutted state resources, have been arrested in Dubai, the South African government has announced.
The arrests of Atul and Rajesh Gupta, announced on Monday and confirmed by Dubai a day later, came about four years after the brothers fled south Africa into the face of intense law-enforcement scrutiny and public outrage. It marks a significant moment in a yearslong battle by government reformists and civil society to hold those accounts accountable for “state capture” – the endemic corruption of public officials and enterprises that has contributed to South Africa’s economic malaise.
“It’s hugely significant” in symbolic terms, said Thulisile Madonsela, a former public official who laid much of the groundwork on the Guptas’ relationship with government officials. “People were getting worried that it seemed there was only accountability for the capture of the small fish in the state, and not for the big fish.”
Ms. Madonsela began investigating questionable spending of public funds by the former president, Jacob Zuma, about a decade ago, when he was South Africa’s public protector, an independent official charged with supporting democracy. That investigation exposed widespread government corruption and Mr. Zuma’s close ties to the Gupta brothers, who have been accused of getting government ministers who will help their companies secure lucrative contracts.
According to an investigator who testified before a commission investigating state corruption, the Guptas were able to secure at least $ 3.2 billion worth of government business through a vast network of corporations. They have been accused of obtaining fraudulent contracts, laundering money and using their government connections to help other businesses get access to contracts in exchange for kickbacks.
“Having key suspects in the capture of state arrested and compelled to account for their alleged wrongdoing is going to boost hope among people of South Africa that there is one law for them without money and another for those with money,” Ms General Chat Chat Lounge Madonsela said.
Michael Hellens, a lawyer for the Guptas, did not respond to requests for messages.
The brothers have maintained that they have done nothing wrong and are infighting the victims within the governing party, the African National Congress. The Guptas have not been found criminally liable in cases involving them that have made it so far into the South African courts.
There was a long way to go between the arrest of the Gupta brothers in Dubai and their actually facing justice in South Africa.
The governments of South Africa and Dubai reached an extradition treaty last year. While that sets a framework for the Guptas to return to South Africa, it is unclear how quickly that will happen and whether the brothers could successfully fight in court.
“Discussions between various law enforcement agencies in the UAE and South Africa are way ahead,” said Chrispin Phiri, a spokesman for South Africa’s Ministry of Justice, in a statement.
In February, Interpol issued a “red notice” for both Gupta brothers, a request that they be detained pending extradition. The Dubai Police said in A statement posted on Twitter On Tuesday, they were arrested after the brothers received a notice, which related to allegations that a company led by an associate of Guptas had acquired a fraudulent $ 1.6 million contract from a free state province in South Africa to a rural agriculture project there.
Mark Heywood, a social justice activist in South Africa, helped many years ago to receive a trove of emails related to the Guptas that were widely published in the South African news media and led to numerous stories exposing corruption allegations against the family.
Mr. Heywood, who now edits Maverick Citizen, a South African news organization, said the arrest of the Guptas, along with other recent arrests of people implicated in corruption, was quelling some public concerns that no one would be held accountable for state capture.
“It suggests the pendulum has swung a little bit,” he said. “We have to make sure it swings the whole way.”