How SA’s No 1 became the Guptas’ No 9

Former ANN7 editor Rajesh Sundaram prepares to give testimony on Monday at the commission into state capture in Parktown, Johannesburg.
TAKING NO PRISONERS Former ANN7 editor Rajesh Sundaram prepares to give testimony on Monday at the commission into state capture in Parktown, Johannesburg.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

He may have been busy running the country and its ruling party, but it appears former president Jacob Zuma also found the time to assist the Gupta family and their business associates to establish their controversial television station, ANN7.

Zuma was allegedly a key player in deciding how the station should be run – from suggesting its name and approving its logo, to dictating its editorial policy – to paint him and his political allies in a positive light.

The Guptas even gave him a code name, “Number Nine”, when they spoke about him to the station’s bosses.

In explosive testimony at the state capture inquiry on Monday, former ANN7 editor Rajesh Sundaram described the then president as the go-to guy for the Gupta brothers when they ran into problems with their Infinity Media asset. They also kept Zuma in the loop, like one would a shareholder, about the goings-on at the station.

But the president was very much involved in the running of the station.
Rajesh Sundaram

Sundaram, an Indian journalist with more than 20 years’ experience, was employed as ANN7’s consulting editor in May 2013, a position he held for only four months. His job was to get the station up and running for the Gupta family; his brief was to set up the company’s organisational structure, interview and train staff, and establish the editorial workflow.

He told the commission of three meetings, at which he was personally present, where Gupta brothers Ajay and Atul – along with station bosses such as Infinity Media chief executive Nazeem Howa, The New Age newspaper (also part of the same company) editor Moegsien Williams and Sahara chief executive Ashu Chawla  – met Zuma at his official state residence in Pretoria to discuss ANN7 before its launch.

“What I found during my experience here was that although Duduzane Zuma was a shareholder [at Infinity Media, which owned ANN7], it was Jacob Zuma who was more actively involved in the meetings that were held … Duduzane’s involvement in the running of the station was minimal; there was just one meeting where he had a small appearance,” he told the commission.

“But the president was very much involved in the running of the station. There were regular review meetings where he would give feedback. There was confidential information which you don’t give out early in the project that was disclosed to the president.

“I thought it was funny that you would hand out a document which had all the secrets of the project to a public office. Only later, I realised it was because he had a much bigger interest in the station,” he said.

At the first meeting, held on Sunday, June 22 2013, Zuma was given a status update on the progress ahead of the station’s launch.

The Gupta delegation, according to Sundaram, arrived at Mahlamba Ndlopfu while the president was meeting with a few of his cabinet ministers. The wait for Zuma to conclude, Sundaram said, made Ajay “very impatient”, and he instructed Chawla to tell the president they were leaving.

“Within a few minutes, Zuma came into the meeting room. He was very apologetic,” Sundaram said.   

Sundaram claimed Zuma had even suggested the name of the station – Africa News Network (ANN). But the “7” was added because the name was already in use.

Ajay was telling the president that we are calling it ANN just as [he] suggested … Zuma seemed to appreciate that.
Rajesh Sundaram

“Ajay was telling the president that we are calling it ANN just as [he] suggested … Zuma seemed to appreciate that,” he said.

“I got a sense that they had a very good rapport with the president, they had very good ties. The Gupta brothers seemed to know everyone in [Zuma’s] family on a first-name basis. Zuma was very warm to them.”

Sundaram said he explained to Zuma how the station would cover local news, lifestyle, international news and sport.

Zuma is said to have instructed that there “should be no lampooning of politicians”.

“He asked us questions, kept a copy of the report, he said he would study it and said next time we meet he would provide further feedback … It was a shareholder review type of presentation,” Sundaram added.

The second meeting was again on a Sunday, a few weeks later in July. The same people are said to have attended.

This time, Zuma is said to have provided feedback on the first meeting and suggested what form the station’s editorial policy should take. He allegedly also approved the station’s logo and suggested the names of journalists and presenters the station should hire. 

“Zuma wanted the station to be centred around him and the politicians who supported him,” Sundaram said.

“He said the mainstream media in the country was not doing, it was not giving an opportunity to come out with Zuma’s views so they needed a station that would propagate his side and the ANC’s side on news events. He wanted it to have a semblance of credibility. He said it should not block out rivals, political parties that were rivals.

“He said the push in our favour should be subtle.”

Asked if he believed ANN7 reported credible information, Sundaram said: “I wouldn’t say that.”

“The editorial meetings were hijacked by Nazeem Howa, who would say there’s a DA press conference, don’t cover that ... It was hijacked by people like Nazeem and Moegsien Williams, who would thrust the same philosophy they had running The New Age on this.”

At the third meeting, which Sundaram said took place on a weekday evening, Duduzane was present.

This time, the president was shown examples of the station’s best bulletins, of which he approved.

But Sundaram’s testimony also suffered a blow at the hands of deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo.

Sundaram alleged one of the main purposes of the visiting  Zuma was to secure advertising revenue for the Guptas’ media entities from various government departments. He alleged the then president would convince members of his cabinet to divert their advertising spend on TNA and ANN7.

But Sundaram’s testimony also suffered a blow at the hands of deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo.

Sundaram, who penned a book called Indentured: Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV, made reference to his copy throughout his testimony, quoting directly from the book and, in some cases, referring to direct quotes mentioned in the book that were attributed to Zuma and the Gupta brothers.

Zondo asked how, without having kept a record, he was able to recollect the exact words in those conversations when writing his book months after he resigned from ANN7 in September 2013.

Sundaram admitted the quotes were derived from “his best recollection” and that in hindsight he should not have quoted them directly.

His testimony will continue on Tuesday.


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