Opinionista Ferial Haffajee 31 August 2018

The Gupta media empire is dead

From an innocuous shake-of-the-head job offer in 2012, I found myself on the other end of a Gupta mood by 2017. I was one the journalists who wrote about them and who faced pillory again and again across social media as the family’s online trolling army took liberties with our images and attacked on what is now the biggest form of media – the online platforms.

Atul Gupta had the characteristic head-shakes-as-you-speak manner of the Indian national – “I want you to come and work for me” – he said as colleagues and I were ushered into the company’s then-nascent empire in Midrand where the family’s first asset, The New Age, was based.

Atul Gupta was the jovial brother. The former government spokesman Themba Maseko was cut up rough by Ajay Gupta, the somewhat sullen older capo di capi (boss of bosses) of the clan. He told his story at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture this week.

Adriaan Basson, Muntu Vilakazi and I were at the New Age representing City Press where we worked at the time and we had come to interview this arriviste family which was turning the mining industry upside down. The amaBhungane investigative unit, or its previous incarnation as the Mail & Guardian’s investigative team, had revealed how the family’s then lieutenant, Jagdish Parekh, was front and centre of what we can now recognise as its first state hijacking: rights at Sishen mine were almost captured by Parekh’s company which he owned jointly with the Guptas.

Parekh was a university friend of mine, so we scored the interview, the photographs of which are used across the media to illustrate news of the family as it was the only time that the two brothers, Atul and Ajay, as well as Duduzane Zuma and the other consigliere, Ashu Chawla, were pictured in the same room at the same time. Chawla turned out later to be a central figure in the #GuptaLeaks, which tells you how key he would become in the following five years as the family tightened its grip and siphoned off billions to build a multinational fortune in South Africa by capturing the state.

It was a Mafia family gathering if you like, and we had a front seat as the Guptas sought to show how the mass media which had picked up the Sishen story were part of an old cabal that did not want new media entrants.

At about the same time, Mondli Makhanya had then, in his Sunday Times perch, begun to write about how often then president Jacob Zuma visited the family’s compound at Saxonwold and about how unhappy it was making Cabinet members and other state officials as it began to wield a breathtaking influence over South Africa.

The brothers laughed off the allegations, pointing out that they were close to former President Thabo Mbeki whose Minister in the Presidency, Essop Pahad, had brought them into the inner sanctum of ANC political life. I remembered that around 2010 Pahad had tried to get me into some new media gig he was part of and I began to connect the dots.

That was the start of a media empire which crashed and burnt spectacularly this week as Multi Choice announced a replacement to ANN7 which it pushed off its platform, effectively shuttering the stuttering Midrand empire of capture. The New Age published its last edition in June as it became clear the newspaper couldn’t survive the change of political administration.

At the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, Maseko provided an X-ray of how the propaganda machine worked.

Maseko told the insider tale of how the Guptas had sought to redirect government’s R600-million advertising budget into only its media products. Previous reports show that it also commandeered the events budgets of state-owned companies like Eskom and Transnet which hosted its monthly breakfasts with ministers and it got free advertising when the much-bigger SABC broadcast the rubbing-shoulder events.

Broadcaster Vuyo Mvoko, who was the short-lived inaugural editor of The New Age, has revealed in a previous inquiry how the SABC breakfasts were a factor in bankrupting the SABC.

Both The New Age and ANN7 started life as fairly standard news media incumbents. With veteran editor Moegsien Williams at the helm, the two attempted to execute a decent agenda and to fashion a decisive raison d’etre – to cover the provinces. It’s true that newsrooms are getting smaller and smaller and there isn’t one that attempts to cover all nine provinces properly. The New Age gave a page to each province every day and it was often interesting.

I attended a single broadcast of ANN7 but found the anchors too ill-informed to make the long trip to Midrand worth my while, so I declined further requests for interviews. But I remained an interested viewer.

When the mass media began to report the family’s offer of a Cabinet role to former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas in 2016, the tone of The New Age and ANN7 changed into a more standard propaganda machine for its owners and later it weaponised words and airtime in service of both former President Jacob Zuma and then of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma as she ran for ANC president. The provincial pages became little more than government propaganda and I now realise that what the family was doing was to open up a conduit into provincial treasuries. South Africa spends more provincially than on any other sphere of government and the Estina dairy in the Free State is a small example of how big their ambitions were to capture the provinces.

As the noose pulled tighter around the Guptas’ strategy in South Africa from the end of 2015 onward, the family became more shrill and deployed its media as if in war-time, turning up the volume on its broadcasts and coverage to defend its business and to attack a wide range of perceived enemies.

I continued reading and watching because if you wanted to understand what Zuma was thinking or planning, it was like a mainline into the presidential mind. Maseko this week revealed why: Zuma was an ambassador for the family’s media interests and his son, Duduzane, owned a slice of the media company. Maseko revealed how Zuma had sought to intercede on behalf of the family when he refused to politicise the government advertising budget. He was then fired and replaced by Mzwanele Manyi as the CEO of the Government Communication and Information Service. Manyi last week shut the last of the family’s media businesses which he allegedly “bought” in 2017.

When the family hired Bell Pottinger, the global PR spin company, in 2016, it used its media empire to fund what we now know to be a paid trolling army of disinformation as it launched an attack on Jonas, Maseko and every single journalist who wrote critically about them using new media platforms of Twitter, Facebook and Google on which the campaign masterminds bought ads. From an innocuous shake-of-the-head job offer in 2012, I found myself on the other end of a Gupta mood by 2017.

I was one the journalists who wrote about them and who faced pillory again and again across social media as the family’s online trolling army took liberties with our images and attacked on what is now the biggest form of media – the online platforms.

You can’t find a Gupta bot today and both The New Age and ANN7 are now consigned to the historical story of capture – all of its different parts lasted no longer than eight years in total. How that happened is a story still to be exhaustively documented, but it is one that South Africa can pat itself on the back for.

Maseko’s testimony offers an example. Everywhere across the state, the Guptas encountered good civil servants who said “no” as they knew they served the public.

Ultimately, the reason MultiChoice sounded the death knell for ANN7 was that the #GuptaLeaks emails raised procedural questions about its contract with the Gupta family channel and for that we owe the whistle-blowers who risked their lives to get the information into the public eye.

And, online, neither Bell Pottinger’s strategists nor the Gupta bot-army of trolls and pests could outflank a masterful army of South African Twitter-sleuths who unmasked them as quickly as they were made.

The Guptas’ media empire is dead. DM

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