Free State govt supported The New Age as a new player in the market - former finance MEC

Former Free State Finance MEC Elsabe Rockman. (Jeanette Chabalala, News24)
Former Free State Finance MEC Elsabe Rockman. (Jeanette Chabalala, News24)

Former Free State Finance MEC Elzabe Rockman told the state capture commission of inquiry that she met Rajesh "Tony" Gupta several times to discuss the Estina dairy farm project's budget.

Rockman said she met Gupta when she was a director general in the office of then premier Ace Magashule. 

She joined the provincial government after the 2009 general elections.

She said she first met the Gupta family in 2011 and discussed now defunct The New Age Newspaper, adding that her engagements were mostly with CEO Nazeem Howa and Ashok Narayan. 

In August 2011, when she was on her way to an executive committee meeting in Bethlehem in Free State, Magashule told her she would meet with people from The New Age, she said.

She added that they proposed that the Free State government should enter into a subscription agreement. One of the Gupta brothers was there but she could not remember which one.

Rockman said the provincial government agreed to subscribe to The New Age and bought 4 000 newspapers a day. 

"The subscription was to give support to The New Age as a new entrant to the market. It has a new voice and no one else [in the province] was covering the niche," she said.

However, commission chairperson Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo asked why advertising in the newspaper was not enough support.

Responding, Rockman said advertising in the paper would have been "limited support".

She said as a new entrant to the market, the provincial government decided to support the newspaper and promote diversity in media ownership.

"It is a highly cost-driven industry. Government provided support to a specific player in the market," she said.

Turning to the Estina dairy farm project, Rockman said she met with Tony Gupta about four to five times at Sahara computers and the Gupta residence in Saxonwold, Johannesburg.

WATCH | State capture inquiry to hear more testimony from former Free State MEC on Estina dairy farm

She said in April 2013, Gupta approached her, saying that the provincial government owed them R84m.

She also said she was aware of the first R30m that was paid towards the dairy project. 

Rockman said in February 2014, another meeting took place at the Gupta residence where she raised concerns that the media was reporting that cows were dying.

When asked by evidence leader advocate Leah Gcabashe if she saw the accounting of the use of the R30m, Rockman said she did not.

Gcabashe said on Estina's version, they took R29m of the R30m and sent it out of the country. She said the last million was reserved for other purposes.  

Rockman also said her department was "stuck" with what the agriculture department presented to Treasury.

News24 previously reported that former Free State agriculture department head Peter Thabethe was unable to fully explain why he allowed R29m to be removed from an account in the Estina dairy farm project before a full feasibility study could be completed.

Thabethe said the department was told the R29m was reserved for equipment that was yet to be manufactured for the project.

The controversial project was meant to see 100 black emerging farmers receive five cows each as part of an empowerment scheme.

Gifted to Estina in 2013 under a free 99-year lease by the provincial Department of Agriculture, the farm was one of the most controversial transactions between the Guptas and a government entity, News24 previously reported.

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