#StateCaptureInquiry: Guptas were surprised how easy it was to get cash from government – Maseko

Former Cabinet spokesperson Themba Maseko has detailed how he was fired shortly after refusing to abide by former president Jacob Zuma's instruction to "help" the Guptas.

Maseko was the fourth witness to testify at the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture on Thursday.

He told the commission that he was fired a month after he refused to meet with the Guptas, who were demanding that the R600m budget for media spend under the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) be spent on their newspaper, The New Age, which later went to print for the first time in December 2010.

Maseko told the commission that Zuma "coincidentally" called him as he was driving out to meet the eldest of the Gupta brothers, Ajay, for the first time. He said the call lasted barely 90 seconds.  

"My brother, there are these Gupta brothers who need to meet you, who need your help, please do help them," Maseko said Zuma told him in the short telephone call from his official residence of Mahlamba Ndlopfu. He said Zuma was speaking in isiZulu at the time.

He said that it was the first and only time Zuma had ever called him instructing him to meet and help people in the private sector.

Ajay Gupta 'cut to the chase'

It left him concerned and he lost a bit of control, Maseko said.

"I already had a date with Ajay Gupta, it was too much of a coincidence to get a call from the president that I must meet them and help them. It demonstrated to me that Ajay Gupta was trying to demonstrate he has influence over the highest office in the land," he said.

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He assumed Zuma, who usually conversed with him in English, used isiZulu because the "matter he was raising was not a proper subject to discuss with a civil servant".

Maseko said at the meeting at the Gupta mansion in Saxonwold Ajay "cut to the chase", demanding the money.

He said he was surprised that Ajay knew the figure despite it not being publicised. The R600m was money from various departments who wanted the GCIS to help procure media space for them.

Maseko said Ajay became agitated when he refused to abide by what he believed was an "unlawful instruction".

Saxonwold dinners with the president, ministers

"Your only job is to make sure that all the money comes to me and The New Age newspaper," Maseko said an aggressive Ajay told him.

He then told him that there was a "new system" at work, one in which they had influence over Zuma, summoned ministers to their homes and "dealt' with them if they refused to comply.

Maseko said Ajay boasted that Zuma had dinner at their home at least once a week while ministers also came regularly.

"The impression I got from the conversation is that we were in a state where there was a parallel state, we had a parallel system of government where government decisions about procurement and other government decisions were taken in the compound," he said.

"He (Ajay) issued an instruction, if you don't comply you are summoned to Saxonwold and they either reprimand you and if you still don't cooperate they pull out the big guns, and in my view the 'big guns' was the president at time."

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Maseko said he informed then deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, the late minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane (who was his boss), former head of policy Joel Netshitendzhe and former minister in the Presidency during the Mbeki era Essop Pahad.

No grand plan

He said they assured him the "matter was being handled at the ANC's national executive committee".

Maseko was asked by evidence leader Vincent Maleka about how state capture worked. He said first the head of state was captured, those behind the capture then established a television channel to control the narrative.

However, he did not believe that the Guptas had a similar grand plan but instead started where they had influence.

"It was essentially saying we need cash [and the] easiest way to get cash is to start where we have influence…. They were surprised themselves when they realised how easy things were for them," Maseko said.

Maseko received another call on a Friday in December 2010, this time from Tony (Atul) Gupta demanding a meeting with him on Monday as they were about to launch The New Age.

When Maseko declined to confirm the meeting, Ajay called saying: "I hear you're being difficult."

Dismissal at Zuma's 'instruction'

He went on to summon Maseko to their house the following day. Maseko refused.

Maseko said on Monday he started receiving calls from communication heads from various departments complaining that one of the Gupta brothers was demanding they place adverts with the newspaper.

A month later he said he was informed by Chabane that Zuma, who was travelling at the time, had given an instruction that he be fired as CEO of the GCIS by the time the president returned to the country.

However, Chabane was looking to redeploy him, instead of firing him on the spot. Maseko learnt via a news report that he had been fired.

Current acting GCIS CEO Pumla Williams is expected to testify when the commission resumes on Friday.