First National Bank, the New Age, and the Guptas: How Political patronage works in the "new" South Africa
Before the Nkandla "white-wash" wiped everything else off the front pages, the past week's headlines were dominated by the First National Bank debacle.
For those readers who may have been hibernating, FNB Chairman Sizwe Nxasana last week made a grovelling apology to the ANC after the bank's senior executives were summoned to Luthuli house for a roasting over an advertising campaign. This included YouTube clips which showed children speaking of the future. Some made negative comments about the government and at least one Minister.
As a result, according to reports, an enraged ANC threatened to withdraw government business from FNB. This threat is, in itself, an outrage as it confirms that the ANC decides who gets government contracts. FNB's "crime", said the ANC, was that the advertisements took an "oppositional stance".
FNB buckled and withdrew the video clips after the ANC argued they could deter investment. That is deeply ironic. The ANC's bullying of a private company, its apparent ability to influence state tenders, and its failure to understand the constitutional right of free speech, will do far more to kill investment than anything a child might have said in a YouTube clip.
For FNB's part, one of their excuses for withdrawing the ads was to protect the children involved. If FNB had reason to fear for the safety of the children, what does that say about South Africa and the ANC? It is truly chilling.
Even as this controversy raged, there was a lesser story unfolding in the media, arising out of my decision to withdraw from a televised "New Age" breakfast on 31st January. I made this decision after it emerged that State Owned Enterprises (ESKOM, TRANSNET and TELKOM) had funded 24 breakfasts to the tune of R25-million (over and above the tickets sales of R792 per ticket that more than covered the cost of each breakfast). Furthermore, it emerged that the SABC's hour-long broadcast of each breakfast was free (a donation equivalent of R1,8-million per breakfast to promote a newspaper sympathetic to government).
It is obvious to any thinking person that this cannot be described as a regular event sponsorship (which would typically cover the cost of part, or all, of the event).
The word "sponsorship" here is a fig-leaf for disguising the transfer of millions of Rands of taxpayers' money into a company owned by the Guptas, who are major benefactors of the ANC and Jacob Zuma.
I was not aware of these facts when I spoke at a breakfast in February last year. But this did not deter people from accusing me of "hypocrisy" for turning down this year's invitation. The attacks escalated when the New Age produced a video of the introduction of my speech last year, in which I read a protocol list and thanked the event sponsor, TELKOM. This apparently was "proof" that I knew that state funds were being used. Apart from the fact that the government is a minority shareholder in TELKOM (unlike ESKOM, TRANSNET and the SABC), this argument misses the point. There would have been nothing wrong with an ordinary sponsorship. There is something profoundly wrong with a "sponsorship" being used as a cover for a conduit of state funds to a private benefactor of the ANC and Jacob Zuma.
But this is standard practice in the ANC. Chancellor House has been set up precisely to facilitate these deals. It is corruption writ large.
Instead of focusing on this, the media diverted their attention to my alleged "hypocrisy". I said that most reasonable people adapt their position when new facts emerge. There is nothing hypocritical about that. It is plain common sense.
The next diversionary tactic was to accuse the DA of taking donations from the Guptas, and the "hypocrisy" allegations reached a crescendo. The argument went like this: It was hypocritical of you, Helen Zille, to pull out of a breakfast sponsored by the government to benefit the Gupta's newspaper because the DA also allegedly received donations from the Guptas".
With respect this is a nonsensical argument. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Guptas giving money to any political party they choose - as long as they do not request or receive favours from a government using taxpayers' money as a reward. I said, I could guarantee that no-one in the DA had ever exercised any influence on any DA administration to give the Guptas (or any of their companies) preferential treatment. Nor had we ever siphoned taxpayers' money to them under the guise of "sponsorships".
Most journalists didn't get it. They kept asking me whether we had received money from the Guptas. I kept replying: Ask Them. If they wish to answer the question, they are free to do so. Indeed, I would welcome them clearing this matter up. But I cannot do so because the DA makes a commitment of confidentiality to our donors. The reason for this is obvious. If the FNB got roasted and almost lost its government contracts because of its "oppositional stance", you can imagine what would happen to individuals or companies who donate funds to the opposition!
This is the sad reality of South Africa's democracy. Ideally the DA would prefer full transparency. But if we were the only party to apply it, most of our donations would dry up - together with any prospect of sustaining democracy in South Africa.
Of course, there are risks associated with confidentiality as well - such as the opportunity this creates for people with malicious agendas, such as Marius Fransman, to invent insane allegations, such as that the DA received R4-million from the Guptas to renovate our Cape Town offices! That is so ludicrous that most thinking people would just dismiss it. But some journalists took it seriously and gave it substantial air time. Within minutes it was being repeated on social media as "fact".
When I heard this, I decided to take the unprecedented step of telephoning our donor to ask him to release me from our commitment of confidentiality.
He declined. He said he did not want his name in the papers. He is not a Gupta. He is an executive in a company owned by the Guptas. I gave him the undertaking I would not mention his name, but I said, given the wild and unfounded speculation (masquerading as fact) I would have to set the record straight. I undertook not to mention him by name.
I also tried to phone the Guptas, but the telephone number I obtained was no longer operational.
So, protecting individual identities as much as possible in these extremely unusual circumstances, here is the story.
In the run-up to the 2009 elections, the DA North West Provincial Leader, Chris Hattingh, contacted the DA's fund-raising office to say a long-standing acquaintance of his wanted to make a donation to the DA's election campaign. The fund-raising staff made an appointment for me to speak to him. I did, and I received a pledge of R200,000.
The donor then suggested that I come and fetch the cheque at the Gupta's house in Saxonwold, and it transpired that he was a senior executive in one of the Guptas companies. I and my colleague Ian Davidson duly went to the Guptas home, ate some of the most delicious food I have ever eaten, and received the cheque for R200,000 from the individual who had made the pledge. It was a personal cheque from his personal bank account. It did NOT come from a Gupta company, nor from the Guptas, but it was handed over at their home.
The DA subsequently thanked the donor. And, because we had been guests at the Gupta's home, our fundraising department included our standard letter of thanks to the Guptas, even though the donation had not come from them.
Later, during the campaign, when funds were tight, we sent an appeal to a range of donors and potential donors. Mr Tony Gupta was one of them. We did not get support from him. But we did get support from the same executive who had previously donated. Again, he wrote us a personal cheque from his private bank account in the amount of R100,000.
In 2010, the fundraising department scheduled an annual fundraising meeting between me and the same businessman, at which he pledged another R100,000. We received this amount by cheque, but this time the cheque was made out in the name of a company of which the donor is a senior executive. This company is either partially or wholly owned by the Guptas (but is not one of their well known brands such as Sahara Computers or The New Age newspaper).
In 2011, Chris Hattingh, who had first introduced us to this donor, prompted me to approach him again. Chris said the donor wished to contribute in his personal capacity as he believed in what the DA was doing. By this time, I was becoming concerned about news stories linking donations from companies associated with the Guptas to the ANC's power abuse and political patronage. Even though it was stressed that the person would make the donation in his individual capacity, I did not think it wise to pursue the relationship. I therefore declined the request for an appointment.
The same occurred in 2012.
Early this year (ironically on the same day I withdrew from the New Age Breakfasts) Chris contacted me again to say his acquaintance had requested another meeting, and he presumed it was to continue his donations to the DA in his personal capacity. I declined for the third year in a row.
Without naming names, that is the full story. I normally would not tell it. This is an exceptional circumstance, in which the facts have been twisted and manipulated once again to undermine the DA.
Perhaps most importantly: the donor has never once asked a DA government for any special favours or preferential treatment. He knows very well that we don't function like that.
The Guptas have only ever asked me for one favour: Once, before they were scheduled to come to Cape Town, their secretary called and requested an official police escort for them from the airport. I said no.
So where is the scandal?
I suggest that the media stop following the trail of red herrings, laid out for them by the ANC, and start following the real scandal, which is the diversion of millions of Rands of taxpayers money to private companies who donate to the ANC and the Zuma family.
This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.
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