Acting head of Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) Phumla Williams’ attitude towards The New Age (TNA) business breakfasts changed, the commission of inquiry into state capture heard on Monday.
During his testimony, former GCIS chief executive Mzwanele Manyi told the commission — chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo — that Williams had changed her position on the controversial business breakfast briefings when she gave her own testimony in August.
The breakfasts, which featured political heavyweights including then president Jacob Zuma, were broadcast live by the SABC at no cost to TNA.
During her testimony, Williams alleged that the GCIS’s media buying division was “bullied” into participating in these breakfasts. Williams said this only came to her attention when she was interviewed by the Hawks.
Though Williams did not tell the commission Manyi was directly involved in the setting up of these TNA breakfasts, she preempted her account of the breakfasts by telling the commission about the changes Manyi made to the media buying processes of GCIS when he was appointed the department’s head in 2011.
Manyi referred to a letter, written by Williams in 2013 in response to a Daily Maverick article which criticised the breakfasts for being elitist. “There’s something mildly distasteful about people having to pay The New Age newspaper almost R800 each to sit in the same room as President Jacob Zuma for two and a half hours,” the article begins.
In Williams’ letter, she defends the breakfasts, saying that the reason why they had appealed to the government was because they allowed members of the public to engage directly with government leaders.
“I differ with Ms Williams on a number of things, but on this one, we are together,” Manyi says.
Manyi said that in the letter she had defended the breakfasts, but before the commission, she “came with a posture different to this”.
In response to Manyi’s point, Zondo asked if Williams had written the letter in her official capacity and so had to reflect the department’s official position on the breakfasts. Manyi conceded that this was probably the case.
Before raising the letter, Manyi told the commission that The New Age was welcomed by GCIS because it was aligned to the government’s mandate to pursue media diversity. He added that TNA was less hostile towards the government, a welcome development in a time when mainstream media was critical of the government.
“It was the posture of saying: ‘The glass is half full’,” he said of the editorial attitude of The New Age newspaper.
In August 2017, a company owned by Manyi forked out R450-million to buy TNA Media and ANN7 from Gupta-owned firm Oakbay. In July, Manyi applied for the liquidation of Afro Voice, formerly The New Age newspaper.
During his testimony on Monday, Manyi said TNA’s downfall was the result of white collar corporate capture of the state — explaining that TNA’s coverage of malfeasance at treasury made the newspaper unpopular.