The extent of Jacob Zuma’s involvement in propping up the Gupta family’s now defunct media empire was met with ambivalence by the former president on Monday.
Zuma rebuffed allegations that he had a part in a bid to funnel money for government advertising to Gupta-owned New Age and ANN7. This despite earlier admitting to the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture that it was his idea to set up the newspaper and news channel.
After a lengthy speech by Zuma about an alleged conspiracy by intelligence agencies to topple him, the commission — chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo — turned to the evidence of former Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) head Themba Maseko.
Maseko told the commission in August last year that he received a phone call from the then president in 2010 asking him to assist the Guptas. Maseko alleged that the request came as he was driving to meet Gupta patriarch Ajay at his Saxonwold residence.
Maseko’s allegation suggests Zuma knew about the meeting and about Guptas’ intention to browbeat him into spending hundreds of millions of rands from the GCIS budget on advertising in Gupta-owned media.
According to Maseko, Gupta ordered him to allocate GCIS’s entire R600-million media budget to the family’s fledgling media empire.
On Monday, Zuma said he didn’t recall the phone call and denied arranging the meeting between Gupta and Maseko.
He was less willing, however, to admit that the meeting somehow flouted procedure. “This issue of the owners wanting to talk to the departments … it is natural that they would want to talk to him [Maseko],” he said.
Zuma added: “Generally the media houses discuss with this department [GCIS] their relations and the kind of operations that they want to undertake.”
The former president did however concede that Maseko was “doing his job” when he refused to buckle to Gupta’s demand.
But Zuma’s attempt to distance himself from the Gupta’s alleged strong-arming is possibly complicated by his earlier admission that he came up with the idea to set up the New Age and ANN7 in an effort to create an alternative to mainstream media.
Zuma emphasised that there was nothing corrupt about his relationship with the Gupta family. “They were business people and successful business people. I am not a business person, I am a politician,” he said.
“I said to them: ‘Can you try a media business? You are comrades, we need an alternative voice … Is it possible that you can establish a newspaper?’ They had never thought of the idea. They came back and said they have decided to start a newspaper.”
Zuma further admitted to giving the Gupta-owned newspaper its name. “I gave them struggle newspaper [name] and they loved New Age. They established The New Age. They were very excited about it.”
Last month former ANN7 editor Rajesh Sundaram spoke about Zuma’s hands-on involvement in the channel, but said that this had to be kept under wraps.
Though it was Zuma’s son Duduzane who was an ANN7 shareholder, his father was “more actively involved” in setting up the news station. Sundaram called the younger Zuma’s contribution “minimal”, but alleged that the former president was briefed on the day-to-day running of the station.
Sundaram said that Zuma was to be referred to by a codename, “Number 9”, in an effort to conceal his involvement in the news channel.
“It was more of a propaganda station that they wanted to set up,” Sundaram said, adding that Zuma wanted to ensure that ANN7 was not an “out and out” propaganda station.