Picture: BUSINESS DAY/KAREN MOOLMAN
Picture: BUSINESS DAY/KAREN MOOLMAN

Former president Jacob Zuma was intimately involved in setting up a television news station with his controversial friends, the Guptas, the state capture commission heard on Monday.

The former editor of the now defunct 24-hour news channel ANN7, Rajesh Sundaram, testified that while Zuma's son, Duduzane Zuma, was also involved in the project, his role was minimal.

The family, and its relationship to Zuma, has been central to allegations of state capture. 

“President Zuma was more actively involved on the status of TV project; Duduzane's involvement in setting up of station was minimal, I would say,” said Sundaram.

“President Zuma was very much involved in the running of the station. Confidential information, which you won't give out so early in the project, was disclosed to the president. He had a much bigger interest in the station.” 

Sundaram also told the commission that his visa application for SA bypassed normal visa application procedures.

He was quite “surprised” about how quickly the whole application process went, and revealed that he was never interviewed by the High Commission of SA in India as per normal procedure.

He signed a fixed two-year contract with the Gupta company from May 2013 to 2015, but started working for the Guptas while in New Delhi, India, before coming to SA.

Sundaram said he was told by the Guptas that his visa “will be coming in no time”, and had to get a yellow fever vaccine and a certificate from a government doctor confirming his clean bill of health, among other things.

“I was told the visa would bypass normal procedure, that our details will be sent to [Gupta lieutenant] Ashu Chawla in SA, who will speak with high commission officials here, direct government departments to expedite visa and bypass some requirements,” Sundaram told the commission.

“To my surprise my visa was cleared quickly in a matter of days. I was not interviewed in any point, nor my colleagues, by the High Commission of SA in New Delhi. The normal procedure was bypassed for these visas.”

He left New Delhi for Johannesburg in June 2013. Sundaram says after a few weeks in SA he started getting a sense that the then president was involved in the setting up of the Gupta TV.

He was told that Duduzane Zuma, among others, was one of the partners in the business.

“I was told at the time that each of them owned about one-third of shares in the company.” 

As editor of ANN7, Sundaram's responsibility pertained to helping set up the station, giving advice on technical issues, overseeing HR processes on hiring of staff,  looking at editorial workflow, and ensuring the station was launched in a reasonable period of time.

Sundaram holds a journalism degree from the University of Delhi and his career in the profession spans more than two decades.

His book Indentured: Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV chronicles how he was headhunted by the Gupta family to lead a team of Indian and SA broadcast professionals in launching the ANN7 news channel; his public fallout with the Guptas, the threats to his life, and the knock this took on his health.

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za