Johannesburg - The fugitive Gupta family used their proximity to President Jacob Zuma to pressurise executives at the digital television company MultiChoice to give ANN7 a prime slot on its DStv platform, the state capture inquiry heard on Tuesday.
Former consulting editor of the now-defunct ANN7 news channel Rajesh Sundaram said the Guptas feared that DStv would allocate ANN7 on a channel away from other news channels, which would make it difficult for viewers to find it. Sundaram said the ANN7 managers were told to lie to MultiChoice when making presentations.
"The slot they wanted was channel number 405, that was a prime slot next to other international and local channels. The Guptas feared MultiChoice won't give them a good news slot number and feared that would affect their ratings. MultiChoice was very professional... they wanted technical and full information about ANN7. There was a whole lot of lying we were required to do at MultiChoice meetings...we had to tell them lies on how we were at an advanced stage and that we were ready... meanwhile some equipment had not even arrived in the country a day before the launch. The information we gave them was all wrong...we were many, many weeks behind schedule. They [Guptas] used the president's office to pressurise Multichoice and give them their preferred news slot," said Sundaram.
It ended well for the Guptas as ANN7 got channel 405 on DStv when the channel was launched in 2013.
Sundaram further testified about alleged violation of South Africa's visa laws and labour regulations by the controversial Gupta family. He told the commission that the Guptas imported cheap labour from India on tourist and business visas, only for the workers to work at their studio construction site, and later in the ANN7 control room, including one Nepalese national who worked as a cook and housekeeper for the labourers.
"I remember how Ajay Gupta complained that the labourers used bathrooms at the offices. I thought to myself that how can they not when they slept at the work site in inhumane conditions? They worked long hours. Why import Indians when there is abundant supply of workers in South Africa? There were serious violations of the laws there."
He said he refused to sign documents to bring in more Indians as there were South Africans available to do the job. The Guptas were adamant that it was cheaper to fly in Indians on tourist and business visas instead of on the required work permits as South Africans were " lazy, expensive" and would never agree to sleep at the work site, Sundaram testified.
He told the commission that he wrote to Department of Home Affairs twice after leaving South Africa, urging the authorities to investigate the alleged violations by the Guptas.
"I am disappointed it's been six years, and I have had no word from the department or a request for further information. It was disappointing, as for six years... it seems I was fighting a lone battle," Sundaram said.
In the second letter to then home affairs director-general Mkuseli Apleni, Sundaram said he copied in several journalists hoping that local media would put pressure on the department to investigate. The letter stated further that the Guptas and their Indian business partner Lexmi Goel had started sending labourers back to India, adding that the delay in investigating gave the Guptas enough time to start getting rid of evidence on alleged visa violations.
Evidence leader Thandi Norman said Apleni had submitted evidence to the commission stating that an investigation was done by the department, under the then minister Naledi Pandor. In the letter, signed by Apleni and Pandor, and read out at the inquiry, Apleni said there were 31 foreign nationals. One had left country and nine others were on visitors visa on condition of attending meetings. The letter further stated that their employer, the Guptas, then approached department to waive the visas. Sundaram said it was the first time he heard about the Apleni investigation and that he was never informed about it.
"There was an investigation? I was not part of it... but I should say that there were a whole lot of other labourers that were left out in that probe. Home Affairs never got back to me or acknowledged my letters...there was a newsroom [at ANN7] full of journalists who, like me, knew that these people were working there, and not attending business meetings."
In his book, "Indentured: Behind The Scenes of the Gupta TV", Sundaram detailed how the controversial Gupta family, who left the country in haste a few years ago, boasted about their close relationship with former President Jacob Zuma and that they styled themselves as the "Indian Jews".
Commission chairman Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo read out passages from the book to ascertain whether the information was correct.
"In paragraph 4 you say in your book: 'Atul Gupta also told me a large number of employees will be brought in on tourist visas and made to work for a few months. If they are not found suitable they would be dismissed and sent back, permits would be issued for those who proved their worth.' In paragraph 5, you say: 'When I questioned Atul on the legality of people working on tourist visas, he said "I have the government in my pocket. you do not have to worry about what is legal and what is not"."
"Did Mr Atul Gupta say that?", Zondo asked Sundaram.
He replied: "Yes. I am absolutely sure that he said that."
In another page, the senior Indian broadcaster wrote about the Waterkloof Airforce base incident and how Atul spent a lot of time justifying the landing of the Gupta private jet carrying wedding guests at Waterkloof in Pretoria in 2013 which sparked public outrage. Zondo read out the paragraph attributed to Atul.
"Our family is close to Mr Zuma. We have never hid it, we are a powerful family and I am sure all the hype around this landing will also pass with time. We land at airforce bases in India all the time, so what is wrong with landing our guests at an airforce base here 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...and it is not just Zuma. We have close links with all senior ANC leaders. We are pranayas [a force to be reckoned with]...we are Indian Jews. We do not keep our eggs in one basket. Whoever becomes president of South Africa in years to come, I can assure you, he will be our friend."
Zondo: " Did Mr Atul Gupta say what you have said in this page?"
Sundaram: "Yes, he said it multiple times to reassure people from India not to worry about what they read in media on Guptas being in trouble. He told people not to worry because they are very close with the president...in multiple times he said they have the government in their pockets. This was regarding the negative media reports on the Guptas at that time."
African News Agency (ANA)