Scorpio: Gupta Inc profiles: Ronica Ragavan: ‘A devotee, glorified secretary and Madam Fix-It’
She was top management, juggled paperwork for everything from the acquisition of coal mines, insurance for a jet and a million-dollar Dubai/New York transfer right down to event décor and the Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc orders. Proxy, PA or CEO, Ronica Ragavan is aide extraordinaire, a Gupta lieutenant like no other.
Her name, face and signature feature prominently across battlefield central in the Gupta family’s State Capture woes. The men have long bailed and today, she holds what’s left of the family’s gutted empire in her hands: She has been their voice, their liaison between lawyers, auditors and bankers, their unofficial chargé d'affaires. ‘I am Ronica Ragavan, CEO of the various Gupta companies and accused number 10 in the Estina case.” This, it is said, was how Gupta Inc’s Madam Fix-It introduced herself at an April 2018 meeting of interested parties when eight of their companies went into business rescue earlier in 2018. At that moment, she let everyone know who was in charge, a tone apparently reserved for moments when none of the three “Sirs” – brothers, Ajay, Atul and Rajesh – was in sight. “Ooh, don’t talk to me about that woman. Let’s just say, we’ll never be best friends,” came one of the responses to Daily Maverick’s attempt to strip away some of the layers behind the most important woman in the Gupta network. Ragavan could easily work a 16-hour day and handle the Guptas' petty admin with as much commitment as she did their multibillion-rand crises across mining, banking and tax. “She’s an oddball man, an enigma,” said a former lower-level staffer who described her as having been kinda good at keeping to herself in her offices at either Oakbay or Sahara. Others agreed, but having had a slightly different view, commented that the real Ragavan would surface when the “bitch” hit the boardroom. This unkind description was used by several of the dozen-odd former acquaintances or professional services providers who agreed to talk about her on condition of anonymity. The mother of one was unresponsive to repeated interview requests. “She seemed totally subservient to the brothers, more specifically Atul. But, she was an attack dog to all else. Never questioned anything they said.” Although regarded as important by former staff who spoke to Daily Maverick, Ragavan was also described as a “glorified secretary”, though not known for her “corporate” dress sense. “There were no Gucci bags or high heels. She looked like us, like she shopped at Truworths and Milady’s.” She would walk into meetings all bark, dishing out instructions, but couldn’t make a single decision on her own. “Around the brothers, she was almost invisible, silent and compliant. “I can’t recall a single day where she would lunch with the suits at ANN7. I don’t think it’s that she was not invited, more like she believed it was not her place to dine among them.” But everyone knew she was important enough to command respect, some say, out of fear. “We would tread on eggshells around her. She used to say ‘if you can’t do it, tell me and I’ll find someone who f****n can’.” But by the same token Ragavan would walk into a meeting room to ensure Ajay Gupta was comfortable, even if just to fill up his water glass. Her power trip, former colleagues say, intensified once she was anointed with the title of acting CEO of the Gupta empire’s holding company, Oakbay Resources, in 2016. This was after they were plunged into commercial impotence (her words) when the Guptas extricated their businesses on paper following a decision by South African banks to terminate their accounts and the withdrawal of their JSE sponsor and auditors, KPMG. No job for the faint-hearted As acting CEO of Oakbay Investments, the Guptas holding company, Ragavan has gone up against former finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, India’s Bank of Baroda, business rescue practitioners and the Asset Forfeiture Unit of the National Prosecuting Authority. Affidavits filed in her name across complex legal proceedings put her at the centre of the Guptas fight-back campaign, waged no doubt with a phone call or email carrying instructions from beyond SA shores. Those include:
- Oakbay’s response to Gordhan’s unsuccessful application for a declaratory order that he could not legally intervene in the decision of four major banks to close the bank accounts of a string of Gupta companies.
- Trying to compel India’s Bank of Baroda to retain Oakbay and 20 other Gupta companies to retain them as clients when no other bank would touch them.
- In the case brought by Export Development Canada against Westdawn Investments, it was Ragavan who went to court to help the Guptas hang on to their precious jet, ZS-Oak, when the Canadian lender wanted to ground the aircraft due to non-payment.
- In the AFU’s preservation proceedings relating to the alleged misappropriation of R250-million in government funding meant for poor black Free State farmers, it was Ragavan who stepped in.
- Ragavan was also among the remaining Gupta cronies that booted business rescue practitioners from Oakbay’s offices earlier this year when confronted with questionable transactions relating to the sale of Optimum Coal Mine.
- In mid-2017 Ragavan, in a bid to extract much-needed cash to pay Gupta company creditors, fired off letters to SARS, including the suspended commissioner, Tom Moyane, to arrange for VAT refunds to be paid to a pay agent and later, an attorney’s trust account.