South Africa

DAYS OF ZONDO

Witness claims Atul Gupta told him: ‘I have the government in my pocket’

Former ANN7 Editor, Rajesh Sundaram prepares to give testimony, 03 June 2019, at the Commission into State Capture in Parktown, Johannesburg. Picture: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

With friends in high places, the Guptas had no trouble reassuring foreign staff about negative publicity, concerns over illegal work permits or cushy business dealings with the SABC.

Testifying at the State Capture Commission for a second day, former ANN7 editor, Rajesh Sundaram, said Atul Gupta often dropped the name of former President Jacob Zuma when someone expressed concern, especially around the family’s controversial 2013 aircraft landing at the Waterkloof air force base in 2013.

In his 2018 book, Indentured: Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV, Sundaram said Atul had once told him: “Our family is close to Zuma, we have never hidden it. We are a powerful family and I am sure all the hype over this landing will pass.

We land at air force bases in India all the time so what is wrong with us landing our guests where with all due clearances. We are being targeted”

President Zuma knows our family well and we have deep bonds with his family. We have enough influence in the government to clear our name. It is not just President Zuma; we have close links with all senior ANC leaders. We are Indian Jews. We do not keep all our eggs in one basket. Whoever becomes president in this country, I can assure you, he will be our friend.”

Like the #Guptaleaks, Sundaram’s book also made it into evidence at the Commission. He testified to his short spell with ANN7 in 2013, covering aspects of his book and a statement handed up.

Sundaram told the Commission these were among several statements allegedly made by the Gupta brother, often to reassure people amid negative media reports and a public outcry after they had landed the aircraft ferrying weddings guests from India at Waterkloof – a national key point – in April 2013.

The family, he said, allegedly abused South Africa’s immigration processes by bringing foreign nationals to join ANN7 on visitors’ visas which did not allow them to work here.

More senior staff were brought on 90-day visas stipulating they were in SA to attend “business meetings”.

He said Atul Gupta had on occasion told him that some staff were brought on visitors’ visas to be tested and if found unsuitable, they were simply sent back to India.

The intention was for proper work permits to be arranged only for those staff the company wished to retain.

When I asked him about the legality of this, he said: “I have the government in my pocket, you don’t worry about what is legal or illegal,” Sundaram testified.

Commission chair, deputy chief justice, Raymond Zondo, asked Sundaram about these utterances by the Gupta brother – in view of previous testimony of how Zuma had allegedly told an ANC NEC that the Guptas were his friends and had looked after his children when nobody else would.

Sundaram said Atul had told him that any South African government official against whom action had been taken for helping them during the Waterkloof landing incident “would be reappointed very soon’.

Atul Gupta allegedly told him he would use whatever available influence to ensure such officials were reinstated, even into better jobs.

Justice Zondo asked that the Commission investigates this claim – in view of what he said, were his recollection of previous media reports.

Though not specific, there have been press reports about how Bruce Koloane, the government’s former chief protocol officer, who was involved in the Waterkloof incident, in fact scored a diplomatic post sometime thereafter.

100 hours of SABC footage, sold for peanuts

Sundaram, a veteran journalist, earlier testified to a “sweet deal” the Guptas had clinched with the public broadcaster for 100 hours of archive material at dirt cheap, “for peanuts”.

Setting up a new TV channel required the team to acquire archive material and this, he said, was negotiated by former Oakbay CEO, Nazeem Howa.

Sundaram told the Commission: “They didn’t have to pay a lot of bribes, riding only on the Gupta name because the whole world knew they had the blessing and backing of the president.”

He testified that Howa allegedly raved about how “stupid” the SABC had been to give them the footage at a discounted price – totalling around R140,000 – with no monitoring systems in place to calculate the value of additional fees payable based on usage.

It was entirely up to us to disclose what we had used for billing purposes,” said Sundaram.

Footage is usually sold by broadcasters per second of material and generally, rare archive material – like footage of Nelson Mandela or of the Marikana massacre – would be of a much higher value.

The SABC maintains it only gave ANN7 about 33 hours of footage but Sundaram said he personally saw excel spreadsheets for the material.

Perhaps only 2,000 minutes (roughly 33 hours) was sold but ANN got 100 hours,” he said.

Sias Scott, a former SABC sales executive later testified about his knowledge of the deal. It started with a call from former SABC CEO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, known to have been a regular visitor to the Gupta compound, who merely informed him that someone would be in touch about it.

A day or so later, Scott says he received a call from Howa whom he later met to discuss the practicalities of physically doing a transfer of the material.

A Gupta employee spent roughly 40 to 45 hours in an SABC editing suite over the course of several weeks prior to the launch of ANN7.

Scott said he is not aware of any contract but said he saw this transaction as “a big deal” as it gave the SABC an immediate R140,000 – the cost of 33 hours of footage.

The usual rate of R100 per minute was discounted to R70 while a R500 per hour fee for use of the editing suite was waived following a discussion between him and former SABC head of news, Jimi Matthews, Scott said.

Scott told the Commission that Howa did not request a discount.

He said he would email ANN7, like with other clients, to ask for a declaration of usage to determine additional fees payable.

He says he has never had problems relating to footage declaration and that people in broadcasting tend to be very honest. However, Scott conceded that he could not be sure and generally relied on clients to provide accurate figures.

The Commission heard that a forensic investigation has been done into the deal but it appears to have been “shoddy”. Justice Zondo wants the Commission to obtain reliable figures for industry norms in order to determine whether the SABC was short-changed in this deal. DM

  • The Commission resumes on Wednesday when further evidence relating to Transnet is scheduled to be heard.
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