Donwald Pressly

Inside Parliament: State splurging pensions, taxes on sychophancy

2015-04-09 12:52

Donwald Pressly

The owner of a newspaper group has every right to demand that his products should follow the line of his favourite political party - under normal circumstances.

Thus the Telegraph and the Guardian in the United Kingdom have tended to follow the Conservative and Labour parties’ lines for generations. In South Africa, the New Age, owned by the notorious Gupta family, and Independent Newspapers, owned by Dr Iqbal Surve, don't hide their devotion to the ANC. So be it, one might say, they after all, own the products.

The problem in South Africa is, however, that one has to get to grips with just how their ownership of these newly rebranded propaganda sheets emerged. Surve got the bulk of his money form the Public Investment Corporation using government employees’ pension fund money and from Chinese state interests. So he used state pensioners’ money to turn a newspaper group - once at least nominally independent of political party influence - into a mouthpiece of a faction of the ruling ANC, headed by President Jacob Zuma.

The Guptas - of wedding-via-Waterkloof-military-airport fame - are stinkingly flashy business people. Much of that wealth derives from jolly-lolly state contracts. But this newspaper, The New Age (TNA), has become a trough for channeling public money. Government departments and parastals - Eskom and Telkom, a semi-parastatal, included - have simply been falling over themselves to throw money at it. This is your money - public money - that they are misusing, whether it is drawn directly from the fiscus or indirectly from Eskom revenues raised from embattled electricity consumers.

In October last year, then interim Eskom CEO Collin Matjila signed off a R43m three-year adspend deal with The New Age. Effectively The New Age is contributing to load-shedding. The figures for Telkom are a little old, but it spent R34m on TNA advertising between December 2011 and November 2012 - which national government following up with R16.8m and Transnet, another parastatal, with R7m in that time.

Fortunately in South Africa we still have a functioning parliament where questions can be put to ministers by opposition MPs. Otherwise we would not know that simply millions upon millions of rand is still being channelled to The New Age “Breakfast Briefings” - televised by our “state” broadcaster, the SABC. Guests tend to be cabinet ministers or their parastatal lackeys. President Jacob Zuma, of course, was invited after his worst state of the nation speech in February this year (when Julius Malema stole the show). More millions of rand are being directed to advertising in The New Age. Most of its copies reach people free - so there is no need to prove circulation, it seems.

So what is happening, is taxpayers’ money is being used to prop up businesses - The New Age would be unviable if public monies were not being thrown at it - of pro-governing party sychophants.

Meanwhile Independent's chairman Surve has made it quite clear he supports the ANC and regularly attends fundraising events for the ruling party. He is unashamed in his support for it. Of course, he would be. He is making lots of dough from it. Watch the space as more and more government contracts go to his fishing empire, Sekunjalo, and his other business interests. (He nearly landed a R800m marine patrol contract although he had no staff to man the ships. It was halted after the failed competing bidder took the matter to court). He who pays the piper calls the tune, not so?

The apartheid era could be described as a very limited democracy, but when the Information Scandal broke in the 1970s, the Prime Minister John Vorster, had to go. We also said goodbye to Connie Mulder and Eschel Rhoodie and many others. Newspapers like the Citizen were established with public money. It was even a scandal under the National Party - not known for its sense of accountability to the public -  to misuse public funds in this way. That propaganda mission was similar to that of today: the newspapers must tell “the good news about South Africa”.

Heads rolled once the good newspapers (with a bit of help from the then official opposition PFP) exposed the national fraud. Now using public funds to supply state oxygen to two newspaper companies - and their associated on-line products - is considered normal. It is not even viewed as a scandal. We have a government which sees itself as unaccountable - and untouchable - as it represents over 60% of the electorate. It, therefore, can do what it likes, it believes, with public funds.

Fortunately, however, opposition MPs are still asking questions. Getting the message out is more difficult as the independent press is much smaller - the Times Media Group including Business Day, Media24 and the Mail & Guardian retain some independence of thought and spirit - and the misuse of funds is being reported. Thus, through DA MP Michael Bagraim we know that Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson - who has been known to favour Surve in government contracts before - has been throwing money at The New Age. The energy department spent "R1 875 624.79 on tickets and (The New Age) business breakfasts for the last three years," Joemat-Pettersson acknowledged in a parliamentary reply this week.

What appears to be happening is that state support for the TNA is now slipping. It is likely that the bulk of this is going to Independent Newspapers, but the opposition parties have not yet started asking questions of ministers about this matter. Just this week, however, the TNA was reported to have received injections of R2m from the trade and industry department and R260 000 from the National Empowerment Fund in the last three years; a further R400 000 from the rural development and land affairs department over this period and R500 000 from the science and technology department.

An instruction has clearly gone out to departments and parastatals to support government flunky newspapers. The order is being obeyed.

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