Helen Zille v The New Age: Money, Threats & Lies

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Where will the spat between Helen Zille and The New Age go next? In a media briefing on Wednesday, Zille said newspaper printed lies about the circumstances in which the Democratic Alliance accepted a donation from a Gupta employee, called on President Jacob Zuma to establish a commission of inquiry into the newspaper’s funding, and accused The New Age editor Moegsien Williams and chief executive Nazeem Howa of having threatened the DA last year. The New Age has thus far run three consecutive front page stories attacking Zille this week – will it now make it four or five?

There is now no doubt that Helen Zille, on behalf of the Democratic Allliance (DA), accepted a number of donations affiliated in some way to the Gupta family. The only dispute remaining is the conduit by which they arrived in the DA’s bank account. Zille’s account of the narrative, which she gave in her DA newsletter earlier this week, repeated at a media briefing on Wednesday, and says she has the relevant DA records to fully substantiate, is as follows:

The DA, as is normal for political parties, has an active fundraising department which drew up a comprehensive database of individuals and companies who might be in a position to donate to the party. At the beginning of 2009, as one of many other companies, the DA approached Sahara Computers – owned by the Guptas – for a donation. Zille repeatedly stressed, at Wednesday’s media briefing, that she considered “nothing wrong” about this step, because there was as yet no scandal surrounding the Gupta family.

After this, Zille says, DA North West provincial leader Chris Hattingh told Zille that a businessman friend of his wanted to make a donation to the DA. Zille initially did not reveal the name of this individual because he had indicated that he wanted to remain anonymous. On Wednesday, however, Zille said she was driven by frustration at the “nonsense” he had spoken, in his account of the donation circumstances, to name him as Stephan Nel, an executive director of Sahara. (For a taste of the kind of coverage Sahara Computers has enjoyed in The New Age, check out this scoop from 2011.)

Nel pledged a donation of R200,000, Zille says, but requested that she collect it from the Guptas’ home in Johannesburg. She subsequently did so, in the company of her colleague Ian Davidson, because it is DA policy to always send a witness to fundraising meetings of this nature in case something inappropriate is demanded in exchange for the pledge. At the Gupta house, Zille says she was given a cheque by Nel, and the Guptas offered her the use of their private plane for election campaigning – an offer she says was never taken up. 

It was assumed at the time that the cheque was from Sahara Computers – which is why, Zille claims, she asked the fundraising department to send a letter of thanks to all involved, including Atul Gupta. (This is the letter that The New Age published on Wednesday as proof that Zille knew she was receiving a donation from the Guptas.) Upon examining the cheque, however, the DA discovered it was made out from the private FNB Potchefstroom bank account of Stephan Nel. Because DA fundraising records distinguish between contributions from companies and individuals, Zille says the party investigated whether the funds came from Sahara or Nel. Hattingh was adamant that the donation was a personal pledge from Nel, but eventually a DA fundraising executive called Nel to clarify. Nel, Zille claims, assured them it was a personal donation.

Another R100 000 cheque donation was subsequently forthcoming from Nel, again handed over chez Gupta. In 2010, a third donation – of R100 000 – was made, but this time in the form of an EFT from Islandsite Investments, a Gupta company. By this time, Zille says, “people started realising there was something untoward” about Zuma’s relationship with the Guptas. After that, she instructed her fundraising team to stop accepting funds ostensibly emanating from Nel, as she claims she was worried that the Guptas might be channelling money through him. “For the last three years, Chris Hattingh… phoned every year and said, Stephan Nel wants to donate,” Zille said on Wednesday. “I said, No, Chris, I’m not getting in contact with him. And believe me, we could do with R200,000 extra.”

Zille’s claim, then, is dual. Firstly, that she initially believed the donations from Nel were made in a personal capacity, despite the fact that she was twice called to collect them from the Guptas’ home. Secondly, that even if they were from the Guptas, there would have been nothing wrong with accepting the money prior to 2010, because there was as yet no reason to believe that Gupta money was somehow tainted. “In 2009 there was nothing wrong with approaching Sahara,” she reiterated. “As facts started emerging, we amended our position, as sensible people do.”

Nel’s account, as given in The New Age’s Wednesday story, is quite different. Nel says no cheques were handed over at the Gupta house, and that all three donations were made via EFT from Sahara. “From the beginning there was no confusion I was representing the Gupta group of companies,” Nel told The New Age. The newspaper also claims that “in one case a receipt was issued in the name of the donor, but was corrected and changed to a Gupta group company after the matter was corrected with the DA.”

On Wednesday Zille said Nel was “inventing stories”. She also said she believed Nel was under pressure from the Guptas to tow a certain line if he wished to maintain his position in Sahara.

As the Inside Politics blog (run by former DA honcho Gareth van Onselen) pointed out this week, the news that the DA received funding from the Guptas was actually broken by the Sunday Times in 2011, though the DA refused to confirm it at the time due to their policy of not identifying donors. The same story revealed that Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement had also received R100,000 from the Guptas. The article also claimed that “the Gupta brothers often bragged about their funding of both parties, saying it made it difficult for the opposition to publicly criticise them.”

Well, if those days ever existed, they are certainly over.

The DA has now come out with all guns blazing for The New Age, with Zille calling on Zuma to establish a commission of inquiry, headed by a retired judge, to investigate the funding of The New Age. The DA said on Wednesday it had discovered that the newspaper receives 77% of its advertising revenue from ANC governments at national and provincial level, and has been given at least R64.6 million from the government – in the form of advertising revenue and sponsorships – since December 2010. “All evidence points to the same thing,” the DA’s statement read. “The ANC is using public money (both overtly and covertly) to fund a newspaper which is openly favourable to the government.”

Chief Executive of M&G Media Hoosain Karjieker told Daily Maverick the Mail & Guardian receives approximately 10-12% of its advertising revenue from government, off a very low base. Peter Bruce, publisher of Business Day and Financial Mail, said it is important to breakdown the revenue received from government, including recruitment advertising, brand advertising and what comes from parastatals. When Daily Maverick called, Bruce did not have the figures available on advertising revenue Business Day receives from government offhand, but he suggested it’s far below the New Age figure calculated by the DA. He said Business Day had a staff member that focused on government advertising who had recently resigned, but the position won’t be replaced, “if that’s any indication.”

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu hit back on Wednesday, claiming the DA’s real gripe with The New Age was that the national reach of the newspaper, in combination with the SABC’s broadcasts of its breakfasts, are threatening to the DA. “They are opposed to an informed citizenry and public entities that keeps citizenry informed,” Mthembu’s statement claimed. He also said that Zille’s singling out of The New Age for receiving government ad-spend was hypocritical: “If Hellen [sic] Zille was to be taken serious and honest she should have called for an investigation of all government expenditure in advertising using all media because her narrowing the call to focus on The New Age is evident that she is not happy for having been exposed by the TNA for who she is, a liar and an unreliable individual who will sacrifice the truth if it does not suit her and her party the DA .”

The amount spent by government on advertising with The New Age, however, is doubly questionable given the newspaper’s continuing refusal to release audited circulation figures. “When you don’t join the Audit Bureau of Circulation, there can only be one reason for it: you are embarrassed about your sales and need to keep the numbers hidden,” wrote Wits Journalism Professor Anton Harber this week.

“It also raises questions about all your advertisers, as they have no reliable figures on which to base their commercial decisions, so they must have other motives for advertising. Maybe they do it to support a new voice and encourage media diversity – but this is a bit rich when the paper is a couple of years old and is not playing its part in giving you the information on which to justify your decisions to auditors, boards and shareholders,” Harber wrote.

But from a media perspective, possibly the most sinister element of this murky saga is Zille’s claim that DA federal chairman Wilmot James was warned by The New Age top brass that the DA should lay off questioning the newspaper’s practices or face growing isolation from the South African print press. Zille claims that the editor of  The New Age, Moegsien Williams, the newspaper’s chief exec, Nazeem Howa, and Aptul Gupta together paid a visit to James late last year where they “adopted a heavy-handed approach”.

Their conversation, Zille claimed on Wednesday, centred on getting the DA to back off questions about The New Age in Parliament. Zille said Williams was told that the Independent Group of newspapers would shortly be bought be ANC sympathiser Iqbal Surve, of the Sekunjalo investment group, and that this would mean less favourable coverage for the DA. Zille says the three intimated that if The New Age were to turn against the DA thereafter, the party would struggle for print coverage. (Surve’s bid for Independent Newspapers was recently reportedly turned down.)

Williams denied this version of their encounter when appearing on Talk Radio 702 on Wednesday night. (Wilmot James had reportedly declined the offer to participate.) Williams told host Eusebius McKaiser there had been no discussion of the DA’s questions in Parliament, only a general conversation about the media landscape and an inquiry as to why the DA was singling out The New Age for special criticism. According to Williams, James was receptive to the discussion and said he would raise the matter with the DA.

As is so often the case, people will no doubt choose which version of these stories to believe based on their existing political affiliations. But mudslinging aside, there are some issues of grave importance underlying the spat: in particular, the independence of the media, the relationship between political parties and their financial backers, and the matter of disclosure of the sources of political funding. But on this latter point in particular we are unlikely to see movement.

For one thing, don’t expect the DA to be taking up cudgels for this cause. Helen Zille has said that the retributions faced by FNB this week over its ad campaign point to the penalties corporates and individuals can expect to face when they are exposed as adopting a vaguely oppositional stance to the ANC. As such, she says, asking the DA to reveal the sources of its funding would effectively financially ruin the party. “If transparency in this case is going to destroy democracy by destroying the opposition, we have to take that into account,” Zille said on Wednesday.

Behind the public spat and rally of allegations, the key point remains. Zille puts it succinctly: “All the evidence points to the same thing: the ANC are using public money, both overtly and covertly, to fund a newspaper which is openly favourable to their government.” It’s worth remembering that while watching the Telkom-sponsored The New Age Business Breakfast featuring Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa this morning.

As it often happens, the whole affair could end being a storm in the teacup. The extent of The New Age’s reach, and influence, are yet to be ascertained. For all the powerful voice it claims to have, with no sales numbers available and with no appreciable take up by the newspaper-buying audience, the real voice of The New Age may turn out to be a whisper after all.

  • Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford University. This article was published on the Daily Maverick online (www.dailymaverick.co.za).