Peter Bruce: Gupta mining plot thickens

SO, the journalist asked of Oakbay, the listed vehicle of the Gupta family, is it true the minerals resources minister travelled to Switzerland when you negotiated the R2.1-billion purchase of the Optimum coal mine from Glencore?

“Absolute rubbish,” said the offended spokesperson for Oakbay, shocked that anyone would think such a thing.

“Yes he did,” said the minister’s spokesman not long after, apparently unaware it was a secret.

Evidently, when the Guptas said last week they would welcome a judicial inquiry into their ties with the Zuma administration, they had a special kind of inquiry in mind.

In fact, not only was Mosebenzi Zwane at the discussions; he was, and remains, central to the acquisition and Glencore’s role in it.

Thankfully, R2.1-billion is still a lot of money, and as the Guptas plough ahead with the deal, a lot of people are asking the same core question: how will they pay for it? They’re rich, but not an easy R2-billion rich.

There are other questions, of course, many asked by my colleague over at the Mail & Guardian, Phillip de Wet. If an experienced miner such as Glencore couldn’t make Optimum profitable – they bought it for $1-billion seven years ago and are, at this price, practically giving it away – how will the Guptas do it?

It’s an odd deal. We know Eskom is comfortable doing business with the Guptas, as are other state-owned companies. They have been able to engineer positions for business associates on the boards of some state-owned companies, sometimes ensuring one of these proxies runs the procurement subcommittee, and are looked after from there. It happened at Transnet.

Nonetheless, there is symmetry about the Optimum acquisition. The mine supplies Eskom’s Hendrina power station in Mpumalanga. Glencore has sold it because at the coal price its contract with Eskom dictates, it makes a big loss. In turn, Eskom is claiming penalties from the mine of about R2-billion for poor coal quality.

In addition, though, the price agreed, R2.15-billion, is roughly what Optimum owes its creditor banks in South Africa – Investec (R1-billion), RMB (R1-billion) and Nedbank (R500-million). As part of the sale agreement, Glencore will contribute R400-million to paying off that debt. Who in their right mind would fund such a mess?

What follows is my hypothesis, and the answer, I think, lies in the mine itself. All mines in South Africa are obliged to fund and account for a rehabilitation fund, to pay for environmental repair once the mine stops operating.

When Glencore bought the mine seven years ago, its rehabilitation fund was already in the Optimum books at more than R900-million. It is nigh on impossible to know how much this might be now, but miners I consulted say the work at Optimum since then could easily have more than doubled that. So, it would be very close to R2.1-billion. As a mine owner you can create these funds in three ways – in cash (contributions are deductible), with full bank guarantees, or through a trust.

First digression: Optimum is being bought by a Gupta company called Tegeta. The day after the Competition Commission approved (in record time) the acquisition last month, Oakbay agreed to merge Tegeta with its uranium operation, Shiva. On November 20 last year, about half the shares in Tegeta were transferred to Mabalenga, a company in which Jacob Zuma’s son, Duduzane, is a major shareholder. Three weeks later, on December 11, Tegeta’s acquisition of Optimum was announced.

Last month, the Guptas swapped shares in Shiva for the assets of Tegeta, leaving the latter a mere shell and thus making Duduzane a significant shareholder in Shiva.

Shiva and other Gupta enterprises could one day become a major supplier of fuels and other services to Rosatom should Duduzane’s father be able to realise his dream of bringing about 9 600MW of Russian-built and operated nuclear power to South Africa.

If only he could find a finance minister willing to help make it happen. As it is, the Department of Energy is finalising the issue of a request for proposals to the international nuclear industry for supplying the plant required.

This is where the union between the Zumas and Guptas takes a form – Julius Malema calls the new entity the “Zuptas”. They have two problems. First is how to find the R2.1-billion over and above the R400-million Glencore is paying the creditor banks. Second is the R2-billion penalty Eskom is claiming from Optimum.

In my hypothesis, the first is easy. The Zuptas will replace the cash in the Optimum rehabilitation fund with bank guarantees and use that cash to pay the creditor banks. It is perfectly legal.

The guarantees could come from an Indian or Gulf bank. The Guptas would only be able to access the rehabilitation fund once the deal with Glencore is closed, however, so they will need to create bridge financing for a few days.

Banks are happy to provide guarantees like this. It is easy money as they collect every time the guarantee is rolled over. Nonetheless, the rehabilitation funds are lodged with the minerals resources department and access to them is almost unprecedented.

The second problem is more complicated and involves Eskom CEO Brian Molefe. He has had to work with Gupta board proxies for years, at Transnet and now at Eskom. He has insisted he will pursue the R2-billion and, on the face of it, it would be insane not to. If he didn’t, the electricity regulator would use it as another excuse to trim Eskom’s next tariff hike request. And, likewise, if he were suddenly to increase the price he pays for Optimum’s coal.

But if Tegeta is now a shell, how does Molefe get his R2-billion from it? Or will he pursue the assets and, thus, Shiva instead? Would he really cripple the Guptas and the Zumas? We will know him by what he does next. Eskom should keep repeating that it will chase the money. And I hope the Public Investment Corporation, the government pension fund manager, will repeat that it is not involved in any way.

Final digression: on the day he was removed as mineral resources minister, Ngoako Ramatlhodi was called to the president’s office. The story friends tell is that he had waited outside for more than 30 minutes, when the door opened and out walked Duduzane Zuma and Zwane. He went inside and the president informed him he was being moved to a new ministry with immediate effect.

A few months later, Duduzane was spotted lunching with Tom Moyane, the head of the South African Revenue Service (SARS). They know each other well. Moyane would sometimes take care of the Zuma children in exile.

As it happens, the Zuptas will need approval from just two institutions, if I’m right, and they are indeed going to swap out the Optimum rehabilitation cash. One is the Department of Mineral Resources. The other is SARS.