Advocate Paul Pretorius at the commission of inquiry into state capture. Photo: Karen Sandison/African News Agency(ANA)

Johannesburg - South Africa owes the two Gupta emails whistleblowers, 'Stan' and 'John', a  ''huge debt'' as their explosive information on the controversial family and their associates led to the establishment of the state capture inquiry, led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, lawyer Brian Currin said on Thursday.

The two whistleblowers, who can't be named and who have since left the country for safety reasons, were the first to possess the Gupta emails that were subsequently handed over to the media for publication last year.

''I believe that the State and the nation owes a huge debt to them because frankly, if it had not been them... I wonder if the state capture commission would be sitting today,'' Currin told the commission.

"From the outset when I first began engaging with them, they were very fearful...there was a particular dynamic in the country as we all know, and that fear is still with them today.''

Stan and John's story dates back to early 2017, when they requested assistance from an individual on what to do with the hard drive containing Gupta emails.

''They spoke to him confidentially about a hard drive in their possession, which had details on the affairs of the Guptas and their corrupt relationship with senior politicians and managers at state-owned enterprises,'' Currin said, adding that his friend also preferred to not be identified.

The friend then approached Currin as he did not have the expertise and networks on how to deal with Stan's information. The three then met in February, with Stan visibly nervous at the meeting, Currin told the Zondo-led inquiry.

''It was clear that Stan had a need to offload, which was not surprising as he had been in possession of the hard drive for many months and undecided on what to do with it. Although Stan could not go through all 300,000 emails, he had read enough of them to be well informed about what appeared to be a corrupt relationship involving the Gupta brothers, [former president Jacob Zuma's son] Duduzane, and certain Cabinet ministers that he also mentioned by name, and some of the CEO's of state-owned enterprises,'' Currin testified.

Stan further told Currin that the data contained emails from then Sahara Computers CEO Ashu Chawla, widely referred to as a Gupta lieutenant. Currin would not reveal how Stan came to be in possession of the information, as this could blow Stan's cover. Stan had the original hard drive cloned, password protected and the two sets of information were then safely locked away. Currin said Stan wanted to make the information public so that those politicians seen as corrupt could be held accountable. 

''We discussed the feasibility of surrendering the information to the law enforcement authorities of the country as this was evidence of serious corruption. But given the situation in the country at the time, we decided that was not a route to follow. We agreed that we could not trust the law enforcement and the political leadership...even at that time, I must emphasize, there were credible people in government agencies that even I could trust, but I could not place my whole trust in those institutions.''

It was then agreed to go the media route, and Section27's Mark Heywood was contacted to help. Heywood then contacted Daily Maverick editor Branko Brkic. However, it had been agreed that Stan, John and their families would have to leave the country before the emails were made public. Publication was planned for September last year, with journalists assuming a foreign location to prevent raids by law enforcement. However, in May the same year, the Sunday Times newspaper broke the story, leaving the two whistleblowers fearing for their lives and that of their loved ones as they were still in the country. Sympathisers then raised funds for the whistleblowers to leave and start their new lives outside South Africa.

''In both Stan and John's minds, they were certain they will never return to South Africa. They were not confident that the outcome [of releasing Gupta emails] would be a political change that would establish this commission. They both needed sufficient funds so that they can begin to build new careers, family lives outside of South Africa. We had agreed that a period of two years would give them an opportunity to establish themselves [overseas] and see which way the wind blows in South Africa,'' said Currin.

Brkic and M&G's AmaBhungane assembled a team of investigative journalists who spent days and nights going through the 300,000 emails that became known as the #GuptaLeaks, and from which a picture of state capture by the Guptas and their associates emerged.

Currin said Stan, John and their families left South Africa between June and July last year.

African News Agency/ANA