Alone in the ring, Mzwanele Manyi looked like a star. The former media mogul and government spin doctor had the stage for himself for three hours on Monday as he set the scene with a carefully scripted response to a set of anticipated questions that the State Capture inquiry's legal team had for him. But then the Commission's senior advocate Vincent Maleka poked holes in his claims and things did not look so good for Manyi any more.
Cast into subjects that included his transfer to Government Communication and Information Systems (GCIS) in 2011, taking control of the media buying unit and the prevalence of "white corporate capture" that he said triggered the liquidation of The New Age, Manyi – uninterrupted – presented his take on matters before Commission chairman, deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.
His one-sided delivery seemed almost convincing, except that it came on the back of earlier testimony by his predecessor, Themba Maseko, and several others about the Gupta intentions for GCIS going way back.
Maseko had testified to an alleged request by the Guptas to redirect government advertising spend to their planned media company in 2010.
They established The New Age the next year, followed by their now defunct TV channel, ANN7.
Manyi went on to buy the Gupta media empire through a bizarre vendor financing deal in 2017 in what was widely seen as a rescue bid after the country's banks had terminated the Gupta company accounts. The New Age newspaper, rebranded the Afro Voice, went belly up earlier in 2018 when Manyi filed for liquidation.
By the time the Commission's senior advocate Vincent Maleka finally got to ask Manyi about the Guptas and his tenure at GCIS during which their media company went to clinch millions of rand in spending government advertising, Apple's comparisons of apple and guava failed to add up.
Manyi had sought to paint a picture of a "false narrative" whereby all and sundry were claiming that the Guptas had bagged huge cash in government advertising.
The reality, he testified, was that they were but a "sliver" on foot charts that I brought along for the financial years 2011/2012 and 2012/2013.
Out of a total public spending of R194-million in the first year, Manyi testified, the Guptas got just over R8-million.
Consider that against the SABC's R68-million slice of the pie, Naspers spread around R17-million and Tiso Blackstar with R11-million and eTV with R8-million.
He said the Guptas did not arrive on the scene and "gobble" up large chunks of government advertising. The spend on them was proportional, he said.
Manyi said although Media24 had a multitude of publications in its stable, the bulk, at 90% of that R17-million, was spent on City Press.
Maleka poked the first hole to point out that his comparison was not well-founded.
They did not take into account that TNA was essentially a single-newspaper company. And that they scored big compared to another, like City Press, the "distinctly African newspaper" which received a paltry R199,322 for the same period.
This was not a newspaper in its infancy, it has been around for decades, Maleka said, adding that the Gupta-owned media company had received 20 times more than City Press.
Maleka highlighted more examples like Daily Sun, also in the stable Media24 and which, although it boasts the largest circulation figures, received just R8,778 for the same period.
Now Manyi asks, "so what?"
Said Maleka: "Mr Manyi brought figures to persuade the Commission that TNA got so little from government. When we try to examine those figures … we are told that is a technical exercise. What is the point of producing it if we are not going to be able to examine it on a more analytical basis? "
Manyi then said the spread across newspapers could have been determined by the needs of GCIS.
"GCIS is not a social development entity required to spread things equally, "Manyi said.
He said the media buying unit used a recognised electronic system that considered several factors when deciding where to spend government money.
He told the Commission that GCIS did not just follow Telmar's electronic system; It also had a transformation agenda to implement in order to support media development and diversity.
Maleka hinted that the Commission will interrogate the use of the Telmar System and intends to show that The New Age I was not even subject to it.
Maleka cited other examples of the allocation to individual newspapers while the Guptas scored millions in that first year: The Times: R183,379, The Herald: R255,000, The Citizen: Just over R240,000 and The Star at R97,000.
Remarked Justice Zondo: "The difference is vast. Do you acknowledge that the difference is vast? "
Manyi conceded, but this was justified as the government was frustrated by inaccurate and highly critical reporting across the mainstream media.
"On any comparative basis, these are daily papers which had been in business for quite some time and all of them got less than R200,000 per year. Yet TNA, in its first year in business, got more than R8.5-million of that, "states Maleka.
The Gupta newspaper, Manyi said, was a breath of fresh air which was "welcomed and embraced" for its willingness to communicate the government message accurately.
The good tidings and generosity of GCIS went to The New Age, he said, because "people embrace new things."
"GCIS can not take the blame for being briefed by government departments. Because GCIS does not have its own budget … it spends other departmental 'advertising budgets.
"We are the conveyor belt and carry out mandates from different government departments. "
Manyi said he saw nothing wrong with the Guptas getting a helping hand to enter the media industry.
'No evidence of Gupta wrongdoing '
Manyi apparently also does not buy most of the testimony brought before the Commission so far.
"As you sit here today, do you accept that members of the Gupta family and the businesses that they own have been seriously implicated in serious malfeasance and State Capture? "
Said Manyi: "I do not know.
"I was very hopeful when the Estina [dairy] Scandal was brought before the courts but then it started to unravel for the State. I do not even know where this is going to end up.
"I am struggling to convict people based on poetry. "
He said people can be mentioned but in order to be implicated, there must be corroborating evidence.
"And I struggle to find evidence of such. "
Maleka asks if he has any reason to doubt what Maseko had told the Commission.
Said Manyi: "Yes, there is a reason to doubt."
Maseko, he said, did not say that former president Jacob Zuma said he did not care about the process. Zuma had allegedly called Maseko to ask him to help the Guptas with their media ambitions.
"The characterization of the request was relayed as if Zuma was trying to get him to do something that was unlawful. That's why I have doubts. "
Asked whether he had any reason to doubt what former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas told the Commission, Manyi said: "Yes, I have reason to doubt."
He said this was because Jonas was not clear about what Gupta brother he was referring to and he could not understand why a deputy minister would have driven off with this "young chap" (Duduzane Zuma) to drive to a place unfamiliar (the Guptas' Saxonwold compound).
I can not vouch for people who have those kind of gaps, Manyi said.
He did not listen to the testimony of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene about how he came to be fired by Zuma.
As for that of former finance minister, Pravin Gordhan?
"I had booked off the whole day to listen to him. I thought he would have tangible information. I struggled, sat there, listened and listened. I lost concentration. "
Then asked whether he heard the former National Treasury general director, Lungisa Fuzile, and what he claimed to have told about a new minister arriving at Treasury to replace Nene and that he would arrive with "Indian consultants," Manyi said he doubted this too . DM
The Commission resumes with further testimony by Manyi at 09:00 a.m. on Tuesday.
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