27 August 2018

South Africa: 'Controversial' China Trip in the Spotlight at #StateCapture Commission

Photo: SABC/YouTube
Video screenshot of former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry.

Cape Town — Vytjie Mentor has appeared before the commission of inquiry into state capture as it enters its fourth day and provided clarity on a trip to China that brought the former MP's reputation into disrepute in 2017. Mentor's appearance follows that of Mcebisi Jonas whose testimony levelled explosive allegations at former president Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family.

When speaking on being offered the job of public enterprises minister by the Guptas, Mentor said that Zuma was in the same house at the time, though in a different room. Mentor added that a condition for being offered the position was that the South African Airways' lucrative route to India had to be dropped in favour of the Gupta's Jet Airways company.

Ahead of questioning, Advocate Sello asked Mentor if she could confirme her statement submitted to the commission, which she did. Mentor added: "I think I'm too nervous to remember anything I would like to correct at the moment," when asked if there were any errors in her statement she wished to clarify.

During Sello's examination of Mentor's political career, the former ANC MP said: "There are moments in which I broke rank before, when things were not right, on the basis of what I believed was principle, and on the basis of what I believed in personally." Mentor appeared to be nervous during her testimony though she made it clear that she was never afraid of breaking rank when she differed with senior leaders on prinicple.

Mentor said that her removal from the portfolio chair of public enterprises came after she refused to meet with Zuma in China because of "his reputation with women".

Mentor then outlined that how her trip to China coincided with a presidential state visit and that it became part of the "official" visit. She asserted that she was sent to China as part of a delegation from the Department of Trade and Industry and that is how Transnet financed her "controversial trip".

Mentor handed over a laptop to the commission as evidence. Mentor confirmed it is the same machine she used while she was a member of Parliament and referred to stored documents to prove that Transnet financed her trip to China. Mentor referred to a paragraph from her statement to provide context, saying: "Once Transnet agreed to pay for my accommodation and travel, I made enquiries from the Department of International Relations as to the details of joining the state visit as per my invitation from the Chinese. They explained the process to me and then directed me to seek accreditation with the Department of Trade and Industry as it was that department that was the lead department in relation to the state visit."

During a flight to Dubai, Mentor claimed she was approached by Duduzane Zuma who she said introduced her to businessman Fana Hlongwane. However, in her book 'No Holy Cows', made reference to Brian Hlongwa and not Fana Hlongwane. When qestioned on this by Sello, Mentor said it was a mistake. Fana Hlongwane was also implicated in Mcebisi Jonas' testimony as being present at the Gupta's Saxonwold compound. Judge Zondo pressed Mentor on her reference to Brian Hlongwa in her book instead of Fana Hlongwane but Mentor said she made a mistake and that it was confusing to try and explain.

After being questioned by Sello on how many times she met with the public protector, Mentor said she only had one meeting. It was during this time that she divulged details on her flights to China and Dubai. Mentor, however, "forgot" to mention either Brian Hlongwa or Fana Hlongwane during her meeting with the public protector. Referring again to her encounter with Duduzane Zuma, Mentor said that one of the two Indian businessmen accompanying him was Rajesh Gupta who introduced himself and said that his brother "was already ahead of the state visit, that he was already in China, and that he was leading the advance team".

After meeting Rajesh Gupta, Mentor said she was able to distinguish between the Gupta brothers in terms of their physiques, adding that Ajay and Atul as they were both "confusing Indian names". "I had to learn their names by eventually creating a formula for myself in my mind, that says 'There's is Atul and there is Ajay' I know them in my mind, I can point them out, I can separate them, I know them and their physiques and their faces, but who is who in terms of the names... "I used the issue of who is elder and who is younger, and I had to drill it into my mind to say that, in the alphabet, "J" comes before "T", and therefore Ajay is the elder brother, and Atul is the younger brother."

When questioned on how many of the Gupta brothers were present in China, Mentor said there were three. Mentor also claimed that she was isolated by other ministers in China. "Their reception to me in that meeting hall was extremely cold and that unsettled me and that unnerved me. I started to worry a lot about the treatment that I was receiving. I began to wonder if it was even necessary to attend the banquet."

Mentor said she received a call from her hotel's reception area saying there were two "Indian men" who wanted to see her. Mentor said it was one of the Gupta brothers who spoke to her when they were handed the phone though was unable to determine which one it was. Mentor claimed that the caller said he was sent by Jacob Zuma and that he would like to meet her ahead of the state banquet. Mentor asserted that she refused to accompany the Gupta brother. Despite this, Mentor alleged that the caller said Zuma "insisted" that she must go with him. Mentor said that she then made it "abundantly clear" that she would not be going and ended the call, leaving the telephone receiver off its hook.

Mentor said she feared for her safety after the call, adding: "I cannot go and hand myself to a man that's got a reputation with women, on a silver platter, driven by strange people...". Mentor cut her visit to China short and  did not proceed to the Shanghai leg of the trip. Mentor's objective in China was to seek assistance with Eskom's load shedding issues in South Africa at the time. To her knowledge, a memorandum of understanding was to be signed.

After her return to South Africa, Mentor says she received complaints that she abused her authority in China. Mentor's testimony continues.

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