One cannot be certain just how many readers, let alone subscribers, The New Age has, but its televised business breakfasts have certainly crept into prominence.
Suddenly it is the president who appears as a guest the day after his State of the Nation speech, then it is the minister in the presidency for national planning, then the minister of finance after Budget day, who have become special guests.
We all know of the controversy surrounding the withdrawal of DA leader Helen Zille from a breakfast when she, perhaps rather belatedly, realised that there is something not quite right about this catapulting onto the national stage of what is still pretty much an obscure publication.
It is probably purely coincidental that the newspaper is owned by close friends of the president, but let us not go there.
A whole battery of state-owned enterprises have sponsored the breakfasts – including yesterday’s event at Kenilworth Racecourse, which was bankrolled by the troubled Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa), together with the SABC, our national broadcaster, which is rapidly turning into a fiscal black hole. This is quite apart from regularly failing to properly produce its core service, or provide consistent unmuffled sound and uninterrupted film.
The New Age breakfast after the ANC’s Mangaung conference last December was hosted by Transnet and, of course, the SABC. All the top officials of the state-owned transport monopoly were there to hob-nob with President Jacob Zuma and the other top five chiefs in the ANC.
Yesterday’s event – where sound links were dropped more than once – was due to have been hosted by the Cape Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Sanlam, which remained a sponsor, but apparently The New Age gave them an offer they could not refuse. If the chamber allowed the newspaper to co-host the event, then it would be televised by the SABC, they were told. It is the classic “you scratch my back, and I will scratch yours” mentality.
This may not be illegal, or dare one suggest it, corrupt. But it is a deeply worrying development because it raises ethical questions about how state funds – read taxpayers’ rands – are being used. Transnet and Prasa are owned by the state. When they are in trouble they go to the Treasury for bailouts or guarantees. Surely it is inappropriate for it to be sponsoring a breakfast at which Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and Treasury director-general Lungisa Fuzile are the guests?
It remains a problem even if Telkom – which sponsored a previous breakfast attended by Zille – had sponsored it instead because it is a state-controlled company. It claims to be privatised but everyone knows that the state, through the Public Investment Corporation, calls the shots.
Telkom, however, does not see it as a conflict of interest to sponsor what is effectively a political event, claiming instead that it was an important platform for interaction with the government.
These state-owned or semi-state-owned entities can, like Eskom, get away with murder as the mechanisms that keep them accountable to the electorate are weak. About once a year, Eskom and Transnet bosses waddle up to parliamentary committees to be called to account for their management of the state-owned enterprises. Mostly, despite valiant efforts by MPs from governing and opposition parties to hold them to account, the dark horses have already bolted from the stables.
All this proves is that there is no such thing as a free breakfast. The taxpayer has paid for it already.