Of raunchy Hindi songs and Zuma lectures

Published Mar 25, 2018


Durban - The second meeting with President Zuma happened in July.

“He feels good if we give him the feeling that he is moulding the news station. It is always good to have the head of state on your side. 

"He will give us some suggestions. We do not have to follow all his suggestions, but we will make polite noises and we will follow the suggestions that are acceptable to us,” Atul told me before the meeting, reiterating a point his brother and he had made many times before.

Like the previous one, this meeting took place on a Sunday morning. 

Ashu Chawla came in his car to pick us up from the Midrand office. 

He was mostly silent during the ride to President Zuma’s residence in Pretoria. 

He seemed preoccupied and kept checking his phone for messages as he drove.

“Have you lived here for long, Mr Chawla?” Arun asked him. “Yes, 17 years. I have been with Atul ji right through at Sahara Computers,” he said with a rare smile through his moustache.

“So you are a regular South African then?” Arun asked. “Yes,” Ashu replied, curtly.

He then played a CD with raunchy Hindi Bollywood songs referred to in India as ‘item numbers’.

“So you have a taste for ‘item numbers’, Mr Chawla. Now that’s a facet of your personality that we never knew about,” Arun teased Ashu.

He smiled sheepishly and continued driving. Arun had run out of topics to strike up a conversation, and Ashu was silent throughout the remainder of the journey.

As we reached the security gate at the president’s residence, the security guards recognised him and waved the car in.

We went to the same room we had been waiting in the last time and sat in exactly the same places.

Ashu went to check on the president’s availability.

Nazeem, Moegsien, Atul and Ajay arrived about half an hour later. Ashu sprang to his feet and touched the brothers’ feet. The seating arrangement was identical to that of the last meeting.

“Rajesh, today I will ask President Zuma to give us a broad overview on editorial policy and also some suggestions on who we should hire as presenters. We will hear what he has to say, but we will only do what we think suits our vision,” Ajay Gupta told me. 

As long as it was just a formality and we were not bound by what he was saying, I was happy to play the game they were playing with the president. I nodded.

The video logo montage or the ‘channel ID’ for ANN7 had been made by a graphics designer in India and had reached us just a few days before the meeting. Atul wanted me to load a copy on my laptop so we could show it to the president.

“Rajesh, we will show it to the president today. We can make a million presentations on paper, but he will know the project is progressing fast only when he sees the videos. He is a simple man. I am sure he will be very happy to see it,” Atul said.

“Sir, the president has many visitors from his family today. I have sent a message that you have arrived, and he will join us very shortly,” Ashu told Ajay.

The president arrived shortly thereafter.

He was shown the channel ID. He asked to see it again and again.

“Sir, if you like this montage, we will give it the final go-ahead,” Atul said.

“It looks good. It is impressive,” President Zuma said, asking to see it one more time.

He had the copy of the presentation we had given him in the last meeting with him.

“I have a few suggestions. We must not convert this into a publicity channel for the ANC and me. If we do that, we will have no credibility. You must present the views of the opposition and my rivals in the ANC as well.

“The push in our favour should be subtle. You are a seasoned journalist. You know how that can be done eNCA only presents the government and me negatively. We need a channel that presents the positives that the government is doing,” Zuma said looking at me.

Despite Atul’s constant reminders that we’d only do what “suits our vision”, President Zuma’s directives on editorial policy puzzled me...


“If newspapers and television news channels show that the people are happy and benefiting from what the government is doing for them, the people will believe it. 

"What is happening now is just the opposite. Show the critics saying that the government is not working, but also show many cases of how the government is changing lives. That way we keep the credibility and we also show the government in a positive light,” Zuma said.

“I am sure you will have the best international standards of production. That is very important. The news bulletins should be slick,” he added.

Nazeem then asked him to recommend journalists and presenters. It was at this meeting that Jimmy Manyi’s name first came up. “He will be most suited for your talk shows. If you want, I will speak with him as well,” Zuma offered.

“I am sure there are many presenters available. Just do let me know if there is any high profile journalist you may have selected,” he added.

The conversation was now beginning to sound like an internal HR meeting. He had allocated two hours of his time on a Sunday, while his family was waiting, to ANN7. The intensity of his interest in the project was like that of a full shareholder.

President Zuma was happy to sit for hours getting briefed and giving input on minute aspects of the venture. The time he spent helping out with the “commercial” aspects was most intriguing.

“Sir, the DA has a very effective PR machinery, and they churn out press releases every day, twisting facts and turning them against the government. Most journalists earn a salary by just reproducing DA press releases and news reports. 

"We have to keep such journalists out.” 

Nazeem said this to immediate nods from President Zuma and the Gupta brothers.

I exited the second meeting the same way I did the first. Ajay asked the TV team to leave, so that the newspaper team could have some alone time with the president.

I later asked Nazeem why President Zuma insisted on lecturing us on editorial and personnel matters.

“Don’t you know? Hasn’t Laxmi ji told you already? He has a big say in this venture. 

"His son Duduzane holds 30 per-cent in the company. His involvement is very critical for the first year of our operations. If we are able to get government advertisements, we will be able to break even in the first year,” he told me.

If this were true, it would explain a lot, and it felt as though everything was falling into place.

The news channel I was heading would be a pro-ANC, pro- Zuma channel that was promoted and run by not only people close to President Zuma but by President Zuma himself. 

If Nazeem had his facts straight and Zuma held the shares through his son, he would be projected positively in the news bulletins.

In this scenario I could see how he would use his position as president to ensure government advertising for the station.

It also seemed, if this was the truth, that there was a clear conflict of interest as his son had a stake in not just the Gupta-owned newspaper but also the proposed television news channel.

As a 30 percent stakeholder, his son would get 30 percent of the profits earned from the revenues the president was helping them generate.

* Indentured: Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV, published by Jacana Media, is available at leading book stores for R185.


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