Johannesburg - Former SABC CEO Lulama Mokhobo has told the Zondo commission that she was unaware that the Gupta-owned The New Age (TNA) newspaper was benefiting financially through the SABC broadcasting its infamous breakfast shows.
Mokhobo is one of several witnesses that have taken the stand at the state capture inquiry regarding state capture allegations at the SABC.
She detailed on Wednesday that she had been unaware that the Guptas' TNA Media had been benefiting financially from the breakfast shows which were hosted monthly in partnership with the SABC.
The breakfast shows were hosted for years and were broadcast live on SABC 2’s Morning Live show. Government officials from various departments and heads of state-owned enterprises were regular guests at the event.
Mokhobo said when she arrived at the SABC in 2012 the arrangement between the SABC and TNA Media was already in place. However, she was concerned that there was no contract in place and moves were quickly under way to draft the contract.
She said in her understanding the breakfast shows appeared to be beneficial for the SABC because it was content that was relevant to its mandate and that is the reason why she supported the initiative.
Mokhobo said she only realised that the SABC had spent millions covering the TNA breakfasts when the commission’s investigators approached her. She was blindsided on those issues.
She was not even aware that the Guptas had been charging government departments and SOEs to host the events.
“From the beginning, it was agreed that the content coming from those breakfasts was newsworthy and that the SABC would not spend money... the SABC could not charge for it and it would not be proper for TNA to pay SABC for it. The SABC news department could not receive cash for covering news,” Mokhobo said.
“Through the investigators from the commission, I found out that the outside broadcasts for the TNA breakfast had cost R20 million. I asked why there were so many breakfasts (when there was an increase from two monthly) suddenly and I was told that they were important and many people in government were interested in the event. At no stage during my tenure was I informed that TNA Media was charging handsome fees from the various state-owned enterprises. I was never made aware,” she said.
The commission also heard that TNA had been charging the SABC over R900 000 to supply its newspaper.
Mokhobo also told the commission how she was introduced to the Guptas by former SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng shortly after her appointment in 2012.
“Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who was the acting COO, came to my office and said I have to take you somewhere very quickly and he wouldn’t tell me where it was, it was all very hush-hush. We arrived at this massive house with ‘Sahara Computers’ written on the wall. He (Motsoeneng) said we are here because these people want to congratulate you. So I went in together with Hlaudi, my phone and everyone’s phones were taken and we were taken into a dining area and the people present proceeded to congratulate me. I seem to recall there was Ajay Gupta, Atul Gupta and Duduzane Zuma and Ace Magashule’s son,” she said.
“They congratulated me and promptly told me that they would have liked to play a role in SABC’s DTT future because they were interested in creating a news channel. They hoped that I would allow them to gain access to a channel. I explained to them that I do not think it would be easy to just give away a channel and bidding processes would have to be followed. There was nothing further to discuss, I wasn’t there long,” Makhobo said.
The former CEO was pressured by commission chairperson Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo on whether she was not suspicious when Mostoeneng would not reveal where they were going.
“Motsoeneng was the acting COO and he was persuasive and he kept on insisting. There was a car waiting to take us there. I then thought there is no real harm and I had no reason at that point to be suspicious of him. He was such a trusted member of the SABC executive,” she said.
Mokhobo left the SABC in 2015 under pressure following clashes with the then SABC board.
The inquiry continues.