Muthambi: 'I shared confidential info, but only with people I was allowed to'

'I want to place it on record that I've never shared any state confidential documents with people I was not supposed to share such information with,' the former communications minister said.

21 May 2021 - 22:40
By alex patrick AND Alex Patrick
Former communications minister Faith Muthambi.
Image: Supplied. Former communications minister Faith Muthambi.

Former communications minister Faith Muthambi admitted on Friday that she did send confidential cabinet information to sources outside of government, but said she was entitled to do so.

She said she sent the information as part of stakeholder engagement.

Muthambi appeared remotely before the state capture commission on Friday evening to testify about allegations that she shared confidential government information with the controversial Gupta family.

“Chairperson,” she said, “I want to place it on record that I've never shared any state confidential documents with people I was not supposed to share such information with.”

She welcomed what she said was an opportunity to finally clear her name. 

Adv Anton Myburgh led evidence over allegations that Muthambi knowingly and deliberately shared information with Tony Gupta, Duduzane Zuma and Sahara’s CEO Ashu Chawla by e-mail in 2014.

Muthambi's testimony started off friendly, but ended on a terse note when commission chair deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo had to remind her that she could not choose what she wanted to talk about and that she needed to answer all the questions.

Muthambi said it was critical for the commission to know that the e-mails were leaked, and denied sending e-mails to those who were not entitled to receive them.

Zondo asked if Gupta and Chawla were the people she was meant to send the e-mails to, she responded that she sent the e-mails to Chawla “based on the fact that he owned ANN7".

“I admit I sent [the e-mails] to Mr Chawla as a stakeholder and interested party, but he forwarded them [to Duduzane Zuma and Tony Gupta].”

Myburgh asked about the implementation of a policy for unencrypted digital terrestrial television, but Muthambi referred to a Constitutional Court ruling which exonerated her. 

In 2017 the Constitutional  Court ruled that the government could continue to use the unencrypted system and that's legal bid to stop the system had failed.

Myburgh then reminded her that Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said she was wrong in not disclosing who she had consulted with, and that her responses “or lack thereof” were “evasive and suspicious”.

Muthambi said it was “irrelevant” and that it was a problem when “somebody selectively reads ... The issue is that I was vindicated so it's irrelevant for me to comment on it.”

The back-and-forth continued.

Myburgh: “So you say this finding is irrelevant?”

Muthambi: “It's not a finding.”

Zondo: “What do say to the paragraph in this judgment [that she refused to disclose who she was consulting with]. You said e-mails sent outside government, you sent as part of stakeholder engagement. Here the court said you did not disclose when called upon to disclose people you were consulting with. If consulting stakeholders for the purpose of this policy then that should be transparent. [The court] needs to know who in the sector takes what positions in policies?”

Muthambi: “I still maintain this is not a finding; that was comment of the judge.”

Zondo asked if Muthambi accepted that if she was consulting with stakeholders on government policy then there should be no secrecy. She agreed but said there was nothing secret.

Zondo: “Do you accept that you did not disclose [the names of the people to the court]?”

You can't choose what you want to talk about
Judge Raymond Zondo

Muthambi said she did not want to debate the judgment further, to which Zondo replied: “You can't choose what you want to talk about. I go back to the question. Do you accept what you did not disclose [the names of the stakeholders]?

Muthambi: “I don't accept.”

Zondo: “Is it not true you were called upon to disclose the identity but you refused to disclose that part?”

Muthambi: “I don't know.”

Zondo: “Do you not know, or not remember not being prepared to make the disclosure?”

Muthambi said she did not remember.

Myburgh then continued leading the testimony.  But Zondo wanted to confirm that Muthambi didn't recall being asked about who the stakeholders were, referring her to a part of the testimony in which she said she solicited views of the undisclosed persons.

“The judgment makes it clear it says you did not disclose the person whose views you solicited. It seems to me that the persons you did not disclose were the persons to whom you sent the e-mail. Am I wrong?”

Muthambi: “I think on this one I'll say no, because the same paragraph says in the policy development process the minister may ... consult some person on ... policies ... from whomsoever the information may be sourced.”

Zondo then probed further, questioning whether Muthambi didn't disclose the identities of those she shared the information with “because you knew you were not supposed to share that information with them”.

“You didn't disclose the identity because you knew you were not supposed to share this information and that this was not part of a transparent stakeholder engagement,” he said.

“I will disagree,” Muthambi said.

Evidence from the Gupta Leaks showed e-mails sent by Muthambi in 2014 to the Guptas on various changes in government policies relating to her department — even before they had been officially approved by Zuma. Three of the e-mails are of importance.

One e-mail sent to Tony Gupta in January 2014 contains a proclamation — which she says is to be signed by Zuma — transferring functions under other ministers to herself. They include those under the Electronic Communications Act, the Sentech Act and the Broadband Infraco Act.

In July that year, she sent two e-mails to Chawla.

In the first e-mail, with the subject line “Proclamation New July 18", she writes: “These sections must be transferred to the minister of communications.”

The regulations listed in the e-mail give the communications minister wide-ranging power over the Independent Communications Authority of SA, including the power to make policies and issue policy direction and oversee applications for electronic communications network licences, radio frequency plans and commercial broadcasting licences.

In a second e-mail sent minutes later, with the subject line “Responsibility for InfraCo and Sentech”, she writes: “Sentech's signal distribution must rest with the ministry of communications.”

Attached is a document transferring powers, functions and duties of the minister of public enterprises in the Broadband Infraco Act and the Sentech Act to herself. Both e-mails were subsequently forwarded by Chawla to Duduzane Zuma.

On July 29, 2014, Muthambi sent an e-mail to Chawla, with an attachment containing a memo from telecommunications and postal service minister Siyabonga Cwele, in which he expresses concerns about proposed amendments to broadcasting digital migration policy.

In her message to Chawla — which was meant for Tony Gupta — Muthambi writes: “Despite my request, the cde is determined to table the matter in cabinet tomorrow ... He called me that he was coming to Cape Town this morning ... I hope he is still on his way.”

Chawla forwarded the e-mail to Tony Gupta the same day.

Muthambi was appointed public service and administration minister in March in a midnight cabinet reshuffle. As communications minister, she was accused of allowing the SABC to be plundered and run into the ground.

She was widely condemned for failing to halt former COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng's abuse of power at the broadcaster.

On Monday evidence will follow the Money Flows investigation and then evidence by Anoj Singh on Eskom.