Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES
Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES

INDENTURED: Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV
Rajeshi Sundaram
Jacana Media

When the Gupta-owned 24-hour television station African News Network (ANN7) launched in August 2013, audiences were mesmerised — by the amateurish visuals, off cue presenters, inexplicable blackouts in the middle of bulletins and general unprofessionalism.

This chaos trended on social media on the day, embarrassing the owners and employees. However, the onscreen drama was nothing compared with the behind-the-scenes madness that unfolded in the four months leading to the launch.

For starters, the name of the new station was given by Jacob Zuma, who at the time was president. His family had a direct interest in the station, owning 30% of its shares, and was involved in hiring some of the presenters.

The staff were treated like slaves by Atul and Ajay Gupta, who, against advice, demanded that they launch the station under impossibly tight deadlines. Management never provided adequate training for the new, inexperienced employees, some of whom had no training or experience as journalists.

These explosive revelations are in a new book Indentured: Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV, written by seasoned Indian journalist Rajesh Sundaram. With a foreword by veteran editor Peter Bruce, it reveals the extent to which Zuma and his son Duduzane were involved in the founding of ANN7, which was carried on DStv.

The issues are raw and make for uncomfortable reading, especially the conflicts of interest and discriminatory practices by the station’s management. Indian employees were treated better than their South African colleagues. Atul’s contempt for South Africans is sickening.

"Jacob Zuma will also hate this book. He has always tried to obfuscate the extent of his ties to the Gupta family, arguing that they merely employ his son. Not so. Indentured reveals for the first time Zuma’s close and personal involvement — and the lengths he went to to try and hide it with the launch of ANN7," Bruce writes in the foreword.

Zuma was not only an adviser to the Gupta brothers but participated actively in the conceptualisation of ANN7’s news coverage. There were several briefing meetings involving Zuma, Sundaram in his capacity as founding editor of ANN7, the Gupta family and their Indian joint venture investor —New Delhi real estate business owner and director of Essel Media, Laxmi Goel —and the station’s top management, including Moegsien Williams and Nazeem Howa.

Sundaram writes that he attended at least four such meetings involving Zuma, three at the presidential residency in Pretoria. At one meeting Duduzane was also present, according to the author. The author claims he was left with no doubt about who was the South African empowerment partner in the business.

The book claims that Atul on several occasions boasted about how close his family was to SA’s First Family at the time.

"Our family is very close to President Jacob Zuma. We have never hidden it. We are a powerful family. President Zuma knows our family well, and we have deep bonds with his family. We have enough influence in government," the book quotes Atul as saying.

"And it is not just President Zuma — we have close links to all senior ANC leaders. We are banias, we are Indian Jews, we do not keep our eggs in one basket. Whoever becomes president of SA in the years to come, I can assure you he will be our friend."

The book also claims there was an elaborate plan for the new station to lay its hands on the vital SABC archives that are reportedly worth millions of rand but which the Guptas wanted for a song.

Even more bizarre are allegations in the book that Zuma had a hand in who was hired. Sundaram claims that the current owner of The New Age and ANN7, Mzwanele Manyi, was recommended as a presenter by Zuma

"We know people at the SABC and so we will get the footage at a very low rate. You will have to make sure that all the footage of historical importance at the SABC is included in the 100-hour bulk deal we plan to do with them," Goel is said to have instructed.

"Get all of Nelson Mandela footage, get footage of the atrocities on the blacks during the apartheid years, we can use it to show the young people of today how the whites treated their grandparents and parents."

The way people were hired for positions at the new station is fascinating. Atul had a particular interest in would-be presenters and show hosts and if he perceived an applicant to be sympathetic to the DA, he intervened. One applicant who was blocked for being considered for work at ANN7 is veteran TV and radio journalist Debora Patta.

"When Nazeem suggested hiring veteran broadcast journalist Debora Patta, his [Atul’s] response was vehement," Sundaram writes.

"She is a white bitch. She is not a journalist, she is a sensationalist. She is a well-known face on TV here, but her aggression is reserved for the government and its ministers. She has an agenda. Nazeem, we should look for someone else," Atul is quoted as saying.

Even more bizarre are allegations in the book that Zuma had a hand in who was hired. Sundaram claims that the current owner of The New Age and ANN7, Mzwanele Manyi, was recommended as a presenter by Zuma.

Indentured: Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV is highly informative and reveals serious allegations that are bound to affect many people’s reputations. It is perhaps with this in mind that the publishers included a footnote showing the efforts made prior to publishing to give an opportunity to those named in the book to give their side of the story: "The events described in this book took place as remembered by Rajesh Sundaram. We have tried to verify whether the meetings and conversations took place as described in the book.

"Former president Jacob Zuma was approached for comment, as were brothers Atul and Ajay Gupta. To date we have received no responses from them, and they may well have a different interpretation of events. By pointing this out, we leave it to you, dear reader, to make up your mind."

Sundaram, frustrated by how his employers interfered in the daily running of the station, resigned immediately after ANN7 launched in August 2013 and returned to India, alleging that he was being intimidated.

The book is on the three months that he spent in SA preparing for the launch of ANN7 as its founding editor.

Please sign in or register to comment.