Former President Jacob Zuma allegedly made Cabinet ministers wait for up to two and a half hours as he entertained a Gupta delegation to fine-tune details of their then planned TV station, ANN7.
Zuma wanted “subtle propaganda” so as to create a veneer of credibility for the TV station which launched amid an outcry over the Gupta family’s influence over him just months after the infamous Waterkloof aircraft landing in 2013.
This is according to the television’s channel’s former editor, Rajesh Sundaram, who is in South Africa to testify at the State Capture Commission about his brief spell with the Guptas.
He told the Commission that he was party to three different meetings with the former president – at his official residence – where they discussed the plans for ANN7 and where the Guptas, privately, allegedly later discussed matters relating to The New Age breakfasts and how to bring un-cooperative Cabinet ministers onside.
He said he had been asked to prepare reports about the TV station that were then given to Zuma during what were essentially “shareholder review meetings”.
“I would say President Zuma was more actively involved in the running of the station.”
Also, confidential information that would usually not be given out so early on in the project, was disclosed to Zuma during those meetings.
“They trusted him 100%. It was only later on that I realised he had a much bigger interest in the station.”
The Commission heard that Zuma’s son, Duduzane Zuma, through his company, Mabengela Investments, held a 21% stake in the company although he was rarely involved, Sundaram said.
The first meeting where Zuma was present happened around the morning of Sunday, June 22, 2013, at Zuma’s Pretoria residence.
A full delegation including Ajay and Atul Gupta, former editor of the Gupta-owned newspaper, The New Age, Moegsien Williams, former Oakbay CEO, Nazeem Howa, and Ashu Chawla (whose emails became known as the #Guptaleaks) were among those who travelled to Zuma’s home for a meeting on 22 Jun 2013.
They were expected at the gate and upon arrival, Sundaram said they were ushered into a waiting area where they found Chawla who had plugged his cellphone into a wall socket to charge.
“One thing that struck me was the relative lack of security, nobody checked our passports and none of our bags were put through an x-ray scanner. I don’t know if it was a special consideration or if security is generally not required to be very high in South Africa.”
He said the full Gupta delegation arrived shortly after him and a colleague and they sat waiting for around 30 minutes.
Atul Gupta was impatient but Zuma, who had seemingly just returned from an away trip, had had another meeting with several Cabinet ministers elsewhere in the house.
Sundaram testified that Atul kept telling Chawla to go to the President’s office to tell them the Guptas were waiting.
“The president can’t make us wait,” he is alleged to have said.
Zuma eventually arrived, apologetic, saying it had been a heavy morning for him.
They sat around a table where Zuma was then taken through a shareholder-like presentation. The two Gupta brothers, Sundaram said, sat on the couch and there were no official staff or aides present.
And, while this meeting and two subsequent ones all took place in the wake of the Waterkloof landing scandal, there was no sign of relations between the Guptas and Zuma having soured.
In fact, they shared a few jokes about the incident and had a hearty laugh, Sundaram told the Commission.
For that first meeting, he said he was told to prepare for a two-hour meeting with Zuma. Sundaram said he thought it was strange that the Head of State could give them that much time.
“We thought the Gutpas had exaggerated and that we would probably get five minutes.”
But Zuma gave them much attention, listening and asking questions during the first meeting.
“We presented an overview of the station, we had commissioned the design, logo and name and gave him a status report on how things had progressed.”
“I was also asked to present details of the (news) content and how it would be different from what already existed in SA.”
At that first meeting, Sundaram said, it was clear that the Gupta team had had a previous meeting where Zuma had apparently suggested the name ANN – since the name had seemingly already been taken, the number seven was added for registration purposes.
One of the mandates he had for the first meeting was to brief Zuma on the content of the new channel. Zuma allegedly cautioned them against the repetition of news bulletins “like those done by eNCA”, Sundaram said.
He also wanted a fresh look for each bulletin and seemingly also had an aversion to “humorous” content. He did not want the lampooning of politicians.
“I forbid anyone from doing that,” Sundaram said they were told.
The meetings with Zuma were usually set up by Chawla, the Gupta point man for engagements with the presidency. There was also much confidentiality around it and “we always referred to him as number nine”.
Sundaram said when he once asked why he was told this was an old struggle-era code for Zuma.
Throughout his time as the launch editor, Sundaram said, he had been told that Zuma should be made to feel that they were listening to him and taking his advice – but that they were to dump whatever the Guptas didn’t like or want.
During one of the meetings, one of the Gupta brothers allegedly said: “See we are following all the things you said…and he showed Zuma the logo.”
He said Zuma had smiled at Ajay in acknowledgement.
All three meetings ended with Sundaram and a colleague leaving once the TV presentation was done and the Guptas, Williams and Howa allegedly remained for further private discussions.
He said he came to hear that some of those discussions entailed redirecting government advertising spend to the Gupta media companies.
“There was one particular meeting where Ajay was very irritated that the IEC was not giving anything to the New Age and he took it up with Zuma.”
He told the Commission that Zuma had said he would look into the matter. Those (private) meetings were seemingly very crucial to the Guptas, from a revenue perspective, he said.
His testimony on Monday takes place six years to the day since he arrived in South Africa on an intra-company transfer work permit on June 3 2013 – and just five months since he had a kidney transplant in January 2019.
He said his visa was the first sign of questionable conduct as he was given an intra-company work permit that had seemingly bypassed normal procedure.
He said he was not a transfer as he had never worked for any entity in the stable to justify an intra-company transfer.
“I have regret now that I was part of a team to set up a TV station, used by a mafia for propaganda.”
This is one of the biggest regrets in my life and one of the reasons I wrote the book (Indentured: Behind the scenes at Gupta TV) was because I knew it was not enough to just have run away.”
Sundaram bailed just four months into a two-year contract after seeing the start-up through to launch in 2013. He said he had pitied his colleagues and could not leave before the channel was launched – he resigned and left South Africa in September that year.
His testimony continues. DM