Themba Maseko tells the inside story of the Gupta family's R600m media heist

In testimony before the state capture commission, Themba Maseko detailed how the Guptas aimed to divert all government advertising expenditure to themselves.

30 August 2018 - 16:23 By THEMBA MASEKO
Former GCIS CEO Themba Maseko during the second day of his testimony at the state capture inquiry in Parktown, Johannesburg, on August 30, 2018.
Former GCIS CEO Themba Maseko during the second day of his testimony at the state capture inquiry in Parktown, Johannesburg, on August 30, 2018.
Image: Masi Losi

This is an edited extract from Themba Maseko's testimony to the state capture commission. In it he explained how he was approached while CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) to divert advertising money to Gupta-owned news media.

GCIS was responsible for the media buying function on behalf of all national government departments. This entailed identifying and buying advertising space on all media platforms (radio, print media and TV). The total government expenditure on advertising was valued at around R600 million per annum at the time.

Around September/October of 2010, I received a call from Mr Ajay Gupta requesting a meeting to discuss what he said was a new project which he and his company were launching which he indicated required government support.

I was reluctant to accede to Mr Ajay Gupta's meeting because I did not have any details of the 'project' that Mr Ajay Gupta was referring to. However, as he spoke more about the 'project' and explained that the project entailed the entry of a new player into the media sector, I thought I should give him a hearing in order to undersand more about the 'project'.

We arranged that I would meet Mr Ajay Gupta at the Gupta residence in Saxonwold. 

On the date of the meeting, as I was driving out of the office parking lot, I received a call from Mahlambandlopfu, the President's official residence. I identified the incoming number as I had dealings with the residence previously. A female caller said the President wanted to speak to me.

The call was then transferred to The President. After the pleasantries, the President then said the following: "mfokababa. Kunalamadoda akwa Gupta. Ngifuna ukuthi uhlangane nabo futhi ubancede." The English translation is - "my brother, there are these Gupta guys who need to meet with you and who need your help. Please help them."

Image: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

I advised the President that the Guptas had already contacted me with a request for a meeting. Further, I advised the President that in fact I was on my way to the meeting with Mr Ajay Gupta at that very moment. The President thanked me for my cooperation and terminated the call.

I was taken aback at the call and wondered whether the Guptas had requested the President to call me to demonstrate their power and influence in the upper echelons of government. However, I avoided jumping to that conclusion and I decided to proceed to the meeting with an open mind.

On arrival at the (Saxonwold) compound, I was greeted by security people who directed me to leave my car next to the door as they would park it for me.

I was welcomed into the house by a female who I assumed was a staff member who led me to the room which looked like a formal lounge. Mr Ajay Gupta entered the room and was followed by his brother, Atul, a few minutes later.

Mr Atul Gupta did not stay for the duration of the meeting.

Mr Ajay Gupta then introduced the subject of the meeting as follows:

The Gupta family was setting up a media company which needed government support in the form of advertising spend. The company would have interests in print media and a TV station.

He then went on to tell me that he was aware that government was spending around R600 million on advertising in media platforms and that he wanted all that expenditure to be transferred to his company, the would-be media company.

I then proceeded to explain ow the budget and procurement process worked and why it would not be possible to transfer the whole budget to his company. I told him that, in any case, the budget did not sit with us at GCIS and that we merely acted as an agency for the respective government departments.

He dismissed my explanation and proceeded to tell me that my job is to go and identify, collect and allocate all the communication budget amounts in the various departments to his company.

He then told me that I should let him know if any department or Minister gives me any problems and he would deal with them directly. I asked him to elaborate and he told me that he will personally summon and deal with any Minister who doesn't cooperate in this regard. I then objected to the way he was talking about Ministers in such derogatory terms. He seemed oblivious to the point I was making and emphasised that he could deal with any Minister who didn't cooperate.

Matters such as the appropriateness of what he was saying and the impropriety of trying to obtain government business in this manner did not seem to matter to Mr Ajay Gupta.

The meeting concluded. He expected me to implement his instructions with a clear action plan. I, on the other hand, was convinced that I would not be party to what I considered to be improper and potentially corrupt on his part to secure government business. In this regard, Mr Ajay Gupta id not offer me any personal benefit, he was clearly attempting to force my hand in a threatening manner.

I also reported the incident to Mr Frank Chikane, who was a former Director General in the Presidency.

On or around the end of November 2010, I was driving to the North West province for a weekend getaway. I received a call from an unknown gentleman who said he worked for the Gupta media company. The gentleman requested to meet me the following Monday at 08h00 in the morning to discuss government advertising in the soon-to-be-launched New Age Newspaper.

I told him I would meet with him but that he should call me on Monday morning to set up an appointment as my diary was already packed. 

He insisted that the meeting had to take place that following Monday as the launch of their newspaper was imminent. I proceeded to tell him that a Monday morning meeting was out of the question. The call ended unceremoniously.

About an hour later, my phone rang again. This time it was Ajay Gupta. He sounded very agitated and he stated the conversation with an aggressive tone.

He said his people told him that I was being difficult. I told him what happened in the conversation with his staff member.

I was extremely offended by what was going on and the manner in which he spoke to me. I told him that he had no right to give me instructions as he was not my employer

He then responded by saying to the effect that he will not tolerate any nonsense and that I didn't understand what was going on. He said the meeting must happen on Monday morning.

I was extremely offended by what was going on and the manner in which he spoke to me. I told him that he had no right to give me instructions as he was not my employer. His response was that the meeting must no longer take place on the Monday morning as they had initially demanded, but should happen the following morning, which was a Saturday. I told him how ridiculous his demand was and that I was out of town for the weekend. He insisted that the meeting take place on the Saturday morning.

I told him in no uncertain terms that I will not be spoken to in that manner nor dictated to as he was attempting to do. In the process and reflective of my annoyance at an attempt to improperly bully me as a government official, I also used an expletive.

At this point he told me that I was being uncooperative and that he was going to speak to my senior in government who would sort me out and replace me with people who would cooperate with him. I can't recall whether he dropped the call. The call ended abruptly.

On my return to Johannesburg the following week, I briefed Minister (Collins) Chabane about the developments.

KEPT IN THE LOOP: Collins Chabane.
KEPT IN THE LOOP: Collins Chabane.

That matter was of great concern to me especially when I started receiving complaints from heads of communications from other departments complaining that they were being harassed by people from the New Age Newspaper who were demanding meetings or advertising budgets.

I was concerned by this development as whoever was making these demands was doing so under the pretext that I had given permission or authorisation for them to cooperate with the New Age Newspaper people. This was obviously not true as I had not made any undertaking to this effect to anyone.

During my tenure at GCIS, there were no dealings or contracts between GCIS and Gutpa family or any of their companies that I am aware of.

Towards the end of January 2011, I received a call from Minister Chabane, asking me to meet him at his office urgently. I met him at his office the following morning. At the meeting, he advised me that he had been instructed by the President to redeploy me or terminate my contract henceforth.

A Cabinet meeting took place the following Wednesday. During the course of the Cabinet meeting, I was informed that ETV News Channel was running with the news story that I was fired.

Minister Chabane consulted with the President during the break and an impromptu announcement had to be made to Cabinet that I had been terminated as GCIS CEO and Government Spokesperson.

Former government spokesman and GCIS CEO Themba Maseko, who told the state capture inquiry about how then-president Jacob Zuma removed him from his post after he refused to spend R600m of the GCIS’s budget on the Guptas’ media outlets The New Age newspaper and ANN7, said he believes that there is a basis for potential criminal prosecution of Ajay Gupta and Jacob Zuma.