Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. File Photo: Oupa Mokoena

Johannesburg - Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has been drawn into the furore over the multimillion-rand sponsorships by state-owned enterprises of the New Age business breakfasts after the Freedom Front Plus announced it would lodge a complaint with her office.

This follows the public spat between DA leader Helen Zille and the New Age after she withdrew from a business breakfast scheduled for next week when it emerged the events were being sponsored by Transnet and Eskom, among others.

Zille claimed this amounted to the channelling of public money to the newspaper, owned by the Gupta family, who are well-known funders and supporters of the ANC and President Jacob Zuma.

The newspaper’s chief executive, Nazeem Howa, has rejected the criticism, saying the sponsors were covering the costs of the events.

The DA also announced this week it would ask Auditor-General Terence Nombembe to investigate the millions spent by state-owned enterprises on advertisements in the New Age – despite there being no circulation data for the paper.

In a written reply to a parliamentary question from DA MP Donald Lee, Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba revealed that Eskom, Transnet and SAA had spent a total of R14.73 million on advertisements in the newspaper over the past three years. He pointed out that they also advertised in other newspapers.

On Thursday, FF + spokesman on economic affairs, Anton Alberts, said the party would ask Madonsela to investigate whether sponsorships by Transnet and Eskom were irregular, especially given that these corporations faced serious financial challenges. “The close and improper relationship between the newspaper owners and the ANC, as well as the use of a private platform for image building which is being funded by the taxpayers, is an indication of possible corruption and fruitless expenditure,” he said.

He slammed Eskom’s recent application to the National Energy Regulator of SA (Nersa) to increase electricity tariffs, calling its sponsorship of the breakfasts “madness”.

“Both Telkom and the SABC are at present in financial difficulties and that is why it does not make any sense that funds are being spent in this manner,” he said.

Telkom is another sponsor of the business briefings, while the SABC broadcasts them free of charge.

It was “absurd” that Transnet and Eskom would “need to polish their images” through sponsorship since both were monopolies and as “public utility companies” were not supposed to make a profit, he said.

“Polishing a company’s image is only needed by companies in the private sector. Transnet and Eskom should rather concentrate on public service delivery,” he said.

He said the FF+ was considering laying further complaints against the SABC with Icasa, as it believed the public broadcaster had defied its licensing condition of providing “publicity in a balanced manner to all political parties”.

“The majority of opposition parties were never given the opportunity for publicity as those who had participated in the TNA business breakfasts,” Alberts said.

He said the FF+ would ask the public protector to investigate whether the politicians who had participated in the breakfasts had “improper ties and conflicts of interest with the public enterprises and the newspaper”.

SABC spokesman Kaizer Kganyago said the FF+ was free to approach Icasa, but defended the public broadcaster’s use of the events to “expose government to the people” and to “make sure they are accountable to the public”. He said the broadcaster was merely a media partner with TNA, and the newspaper was the main organiser of logistics, including deciding who would be present at the events.

Kganyago said there were clear principles on giving all political parties exposure during election periods, but that other news coverage was dependent on whether something was a “topical issue” or not.

“They (opposition parties) see a minister as a representative of a political party, as an ANC person, but the president is the president of the country,” he said.

Political Bureau