Former president Jacob Zuma not only called Themba Maseko to push him to help the Guptas land government’s R600-million advertising spend, he also helped Ajay Gupta make good on his promise to “sort” Maseko out after he resisted.
Barely two months after Themba Maseko, the former head of government communications, told the Guptas to take a hike, he would find himself in a meeting with his then minister, the late Collins Chabane.
Jacob Zuma, out of the country at the time, allegedly told Chabane to fire Maseko or move him to another department “by the time he returned to the country”.
Testifying at the State Capture inquiry on Thursday morning, Maseko said Chabane told him that he had no choice and offered to canvass his Cabinet colleagues for a job for, firstly because he had “done nothing wrong,” and then, because he didn’t want Maseko to be “out on the street”.
Maseko had spent some 17 years in the public sector, three of those as the CEO of the Government Information and Communications System (GCIS), a unit located within the Presidency.
But, before a job could be arranged for him, his departure from GCIS was announced at the end of a Cabinet meeting when Zuma allegedly told his ministers that Chabane had an announcement to make.
Maseko, as the then government spokesman, also responsible for communicating the outcome of Cabinet meetings, was in that meeting.
A shocked Chabane was forced to announce that Maseko would vacate his job to make way for Mzwanele Manyi, the man who would later “buy” the Gupta media empire.
Maseko, Cabinet was told, would join the Department of Public Service and Administration as Director General. Except, the minister of DPSA, Richard Baloyi, was not in the Cabinet meeting, and had no clue and nor was he impressed about the appointment when Maseko later called to introduce himself as his new DG.
That didn’t last long as Maseko found himself largely shunned in the new job and exited government employ a few months later.
He concluded his testimony at the commission pending an application by Ajay Gupta to cross-examine some of the initial high-profile witnesses including former deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas and former ANC MP, Vytjie Mentor. They testified about claims that Ajay Gupta had offered them ministerial posts and in the case of Jonas, also a R600-million bribe in exchange for firing senior staff at National Treasury.
In his testimony before the commission chairman, Justice Raymond Zondo, Maseko sketched the background to his dismissal from GCIS – starting with a call from Gupta patriarch, Ajay Gupta in 2010.
The family was about to enter the media ownership space and they wanted the R600-million spent across individual government departments to be directed to them.
By then, although he had heard enough rumours of how the Guptas used politicians to extract government contracts, he agreed to the meeting as he would have done for any other media owner.
On the day of the meeting, as he was driving out of his office building, he got a call from a number he recognised, the official residence of former president Zuma at Mahlamba Ndlopfu.
The woman on the phone told him the president wanted to speak to him and patched him through. While Maseko had often interacted with Zuma for official business, this call concerned him.
“I was not surprised because my job required me to interact with the president. It is the conversation I had with him that caused major concern to me,” he said.
Zuma, speaking in isiZulu, allegedly told him:
“My brother, there are these Gupta guys who need to meet you and who need your help. Please help them and see what you can do to help them”
Maseko says he was taken aback by the call and wondered if the Guptas had asked Zuma to call him to demonstrate their power in the upper echelons of government.
“It was too much of a coincidence that I got a call from the highest office while on my way to a meeting with them.
“I took that to mean that it was possible that Ajay may have called Zuma and told him that him ‘I am meeting with this fellow and make sure that he knows you have our back’.
“It demonstrated to me that Ajay was trying to show that he had influence in the highest office of the land,” said Maseko.
Once in Saxonwold for the meeting, Maseko says Ajay Gupta quickly cut to the chase by stating that were starting a media business and that government’s R600-million advertising spend must be spent with them so they could “manage” all government messages.
“I was surprised that he even knew the amount involved as that is not a publicised figure and not one that just anyone has in their head.”
When he told Ajay this was not how things worked, the Gupta brother allegedly told him to report back if he had difficulty with any minister as they would “call them to order”.
“I said Mr Ajay, these are my ministers, you can’t talk about them like that. He then said, ‘no, that is how the system works now. If there is any minister who is not co-operative I tell him (Zuma) and he sorts them out’.”
Asked if he understood what Ajay meant by that, Maseko says he got the impression that South Africa now had a parallel system of government where decisions about government and procurement were taken at the family’s Saxonwold compound.
Maseko would get another call a few weeks later, in November of that year, this time from brother Rajesh (Tony) Gupta while on his way to Sun City.
Rajesh, he testified, insisted on an urgent meeting over the exact issue and Maseko says he told him to call his office on Monday which he never did.
But by the end of January, the late minister Chabane called him to the meeting to inform him of Zuma’s instruction that he be fired or moved.
Leading Maseko through his evidence, senior advocate Vincent Maleka of the commission’s legal team asked whether he had tried to understand the phenomenon of State Capture since.
Maseko says he has looked at versions thereof in countries like Russia, India and to an extent, the United States and had read the book Once Upon a Time in Russiawhich speaks to how a state can be captured by powerful people.
Asked why he thought the Guptas approached him so early on in their wave of State Capture, Maseko said he believed they were targeting GCIS as the institution, rather than him.
“I wouldn’t give the Guptas that credit, that they had a clear plan to hit the media, then a dairy farm and then state-owned entities. This was about low-hanging fruit, GCIS was in the Presidency and if they felt they had influence and control over the president.”
This was no grand plan or strategy, they were essentially saying ‘we need cash, what’s the quickest way to get it”.
With a chuckle, he added: “They probably surprised themselves when they realised how easily it came together for them in this country.”
The hearing resumes on Friday morning when current acting DG of GCIS, Phumla Williams is taking the stand. Her testimony on the day will be followed by two international experts who will guide the commission on the concept of State Capture via video conference. DM