Photo by: Creamer Media
At least 77 schools in the North West were allegedly invited to design a wedding invitation for the Guptas' grand Sun City family wedding as part of assistance schemes to highlight the family's social contributions, Members of Parliament (MPs) heard on Wednesday.
The Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs began its first day of testimony in its inquiry into the naturalisation of members of the Gupta family.
MPs heard that the family offered the schools prizes of hula hoops, soccer balls and crayons for the best designed invitations, all done apparently without the permission of the province's education department.
This was only discovered recently, when the committee asked the department to investigate claims of corporate social investment by the Guptas' Oakbay Investments, made in a naturalisation application to the Department of Home Affairs.
"We are not aware of the contact with our schools," North West education and sports MEC Sello Lehari told MPs on Wednesday.
The province's education department claimed to only have found out about it when the committee contacted it for answers for the committee's second phase of its probe into allegations that the Guptas were irregularly given South African citizenship.
Lehari said that in its investigation, the department discovered that 77 schools were sent a letter in April 2013 inviting them to be part of a "competition" to design a wedding invitation.
This was a month before the nuptials of Vega Gupta and her soon-to-be-husband Aakash Jahajgarhia at the Sun City resort that May, an event which sparked its own controversy after the landing at Waterkloof air force base of a private jet transporting guests.
The department discovered that some of the 77 schools were not known to it; four no longer existed because of the rationalisation of schools through a closure and merger process, while one school was duplicated. This left 68 schools.
Those schools were contacted, and the number of schools that actually benefitted from the competition was only 33.
'Tricked our unsuspecting principals'
Lehari said the department was so concerned that the head of department was not informed of this, that it is holding a meeting with principals in the province this Friday to remind them that according to protocol, any such approaches must go through the head of department to be approved.
"They tricked our unsuspecting school principals into thinking our learners, and by extension our schools, were participating in a drawing competition," said Lehari.
"We take this experience as an eye-opener."
He said he did not attend the infamous wedding.
He said that in the course of investigating the matter for the committee, the department also discovered that there were schools getting free Wi-Fi from a private company whose background the department had no clarity on yet. That too is being probed.
The department discovered that prizes handed out for the invitation competition included hula hoops, netballs, soccer balls and plastic whistles. One school got crayons and paper.
There were also cash prizes that ranged from R1 000 for a winning pupil, to R15 000 for a winning school in the different regions.
Most of the schools that did actually benefit were in the Moses Kotane region of the North West.
The head of department for education in the North West, Stephinah Semaswe, told the committee the card the schoolchildren were asked to design was a "well-wishing card" or a "congratulations" card.
The emails allegedly came from JIC mining services, West Dawn Investments, the Sundown Ranch Sports Academy and Platinum Group Metals, based on letterheads.
'We did not pick it up early enough'
The main prize-giving ceremony was in May 2013, the month of the wedding.
Besides the hula hoops, balls, whistles and basic sports equipment, some winners and schools got a spade, a wheelbarrow and a rake.
"We do confess, we were unable to pick it up early enough," said Semaswe.
She said that Oakbay Investments did not appear on any of the letterheads the department found, but it understood that the companies involved in the competition were linked to Oakbay.
She said the department could also not substantiate claims by the Guptas that they had funded feeding schemes in the province.
The only school feeding scheme the department could find was one sponsored by Tiger Brands.
In a naturalisation request for Angoori Gupta, Kamal Singhala and Surya Singhala, Oakbay Investments official Ashu Chawla wrote that the family's interests had always been about upliftment and social investment.
The letter submits an investment of R1-million in sporting equipment for 75 schools.
'First time they ever had something like KFC'
"Another ongoing project which we are very proud of is our school feeding scheme whereby we support different schools in the suburbs where we operate by providing stationary (sic) kits, school uniforms and a takeaway lunch for every pupil at the school!
"Many of the kids have told us that these meals are the first time they ever had something like KFC!"
Semaswe said the department was going to investigate further because there were also claims that laptops had been delivered, but these were not recorded. Not recording them was a violation of school delivery acceptance protocol, she said.
Earlier, the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse's (Outa) Rudie Heyneke claimed that as the CEO of Oakbay's Sahara Computers, Chawla seemed to be the "post office" for all communication between certain Department of Home Affairs officials.
This was based on thousands of emails Outa had analysed, based on the early #GuptaLeaks media reports.
Heyneke alleged that Chawla had formed relationships with two home affairs officials sent to India at a time when the department did not have the budget for extra staff it needed.
He also apparently befriended other officials in the department, including one who was a music composer and wanted his work to be played on news channel ANN7, now off-air and formerly owned by the family, Heyneke said.
MPs raised questions about the admissibility of the #GuptaLeak emails during the committee's hearings.
Outa said it had commissioned word-detection software to go through the emails, and so far had not found evidence or an email that showed that Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba was directly involved in Gupta family meetings.
The committee adjourned until 16:00 to allow preparation for the next submissions.
Committee chairperson Hlomane Chauke said he would request that Chawla make himself available to the committee, or he would invoke parliamentary powers to have him subpoenaed.