Iqbal Meer Sharma, once a powerful South African government official in the Department of Trade and Industry, was arrested on Thursday in a massive fraud and corruption scandal linked to the controversial Gupta family.
Mr. Sharma was charged alongside three senior former officials of the Free State government, who allegedly transgressed processes related to spending of public funds. The state alleges that Mr. Sharma, through his company Nuland Investment, laundered over 20 million Rands which the provincial Free State Department of Agriculture paid for a feasibility study which was supposed to cost just 1.5 million Rands.
This was to determine whether the Estina Dairy Farm project would benefit small-scale Black farmers in partnership with Indian company Paras.
The Estina project failed badly, with allegations that tens of millions more from the venture were siphoned off to the Gupta family, which is accused of looting billions of Rands from a number of state and parastatal institutions.
The Gupta brothers - Ajay, Atul and Rajesh - are in self-exile in Dubai as the South African government tries through the UN to extradite them because there is no extradition treaty between the two countries.
Nuland then outsourced the study to two companies, which later over-charged the department with 24 million Rands.
“We are alleging that, in order to siphon off money, (Sharma) subcontracted another company and the other sub-company was supposed to do the same services which [another well-known company] had already done,” said Sindisiwe Seboka, spokesperson for the National Prosecuting Authority’s Investigative Directorate.
Mr. Sharma and the former Head of the Agriculture Department Peter Tabetha were remanded in custody pending a formal bail application on June 7.
In 2002, Mr. Sharma, then a director in the South African Department of Trade and Industries, joined then Indian Commerce Secretary Dipak Chatterjee in Johannesburg for a three-day meeting with high-profile business leaders to revive cooperation between the two countries through the India South Africa Commercial Alliance (ISACA).
“Historically, we have got strong political and cultural ties, but the economic dimension of our relationship has been given a boost by ISACA, which was set up after the then Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral visited South Africa in 1997,” Sharma said then.
After rising through the ranks to various positions in state Departments, Sharma started his own business, with frequent visits to India.
In 2012, Mr. Sharma hit the headlines after an incident in a Mumbai restaurant which saw popular actor Saif Ali Khan being arrested after he allegedly punched Sharma.
Mr. Sharma claimed that Mr. Khan retaliated angrily after he sent several requests via restaurant staff to Mr. Khan’s table, where he was dining with some fellow actors, to lower their voices and allow Mr. Sharma and his family to enjoy their meal in peace.
At a press conference later for his then newest film ‘Agent Vinod', Mr. Khan denied that the incident had been a publicity stunt for the film’s release, admitting that he could have handled the situation better and was sorry for the way it had panned out.