- Admits to meeting Guptas over the years
- They were in the environment; it was not like they were not known and nobody ever engaged with them, she says
Former Free State finance MEC Elsabe Rockman told the Zondo Commission on Wednesday that the provincial government subscribed to the now defunct New Age newspaper because it was a new entrant into the highly cost driven media industry and needed support.
The state capture-implicated Rockman said advertising support from the provincial government would not have been enough hence a decision to buy 4 000 copies of the newspapers every day.
Rockman is accused of wrongdoing relating to the controversial Estina dairy farm project in Vrede when she worked as a director-general in Magashule’s office between September 2010 and March 2013 when she joined the legislature.
“The subscription was to give support to The New Age as a new entrant to the market. It was a new voice and no one else in the province was covering the niche, it is a highly cost-driven industry,” she told the commission.
Rockman further submitted advertising on its own would have been limited support for the newspaper.
“In August 2011, I was on the way to an executive committee meeting in Bethlehem. I was informed that I was to meet people from The New Age. I was called by the premier (Ace Magashule). They wanted to meet before the exco started … I don’t know who organised the logistics of the meeting,” she said.
“They presented a proposal where we should enter into a subscription agreement from The New Age. One of the Gupta brothers was present but I can’t remember which one,” she added.
The former treasury boss said it was not strange for people outside government to arrive at venues where executive committee meetings were being held.
She indicated the idea was that the office of the premier would enter into the subscription agreement on behalf of all departments.
Magashule’s office thereafter agreed to purchase 4,000 copies of The New Age (TNA) per day.
Rockman also told the commission she first met the Gupta family in 2011 where the New Age Newspaper was discussed, citing most of her engagements were with CEO Nazeem Howa and Ashok Narayan.
She met the brothers again at a TNA business breakfast in May 2012 in Bloemfontein and again in December that year at the ANC’s national conference.
“They were in the environment; it was not like they were not known and nobody ever engaged with them,” she told Justice Zondo.
Rockman also visited the family at their Saxonwold home in April 2013.
“It was after I had left as director-general when I was appointed MEC of finance. The purpose of that meeting was to say what are the arrangements now that you are no longer there (at the premier’s office) in relation to the TNA subscriptions … and it was the outstanding payment to Vrede dairy for the 2012/2013 financial year. We had owed them money,” she added.
Turning to the controversial Vrede Dairy Farm in Estina, Rockman told the commission she met Rajesh ‘Tony’ Gupta several times to discuss the farm project’s budget.
She noted further engagements came when the provincial government raised concern over the reported deaths of livestock at the farm.
She said she met with Tony Gupta about four to five times at Sahara Computers and the Gupta residence in Saxonworld, Johannesburg.
Rockman further spoke of a sum of R30m that was paid towards the dairy project as first payment, but admitted to not having seen the accounting on the use of the money.
She told Justice Zondo her department was “stuck” with what the provincial department of agriculture had presented to treasury.
Former Free State agriculture department head, Peter Thabethe said the R29 million paid to Estina was according to the Gupta family reserved for farming equipment that was still going to be manufactured.
Thabethe’s remarks came after evidence leaders at the commission probed him on why he allowed the money to be removed from an account in the Estina dairy farm project before a full feasibility study could be completed.
The ambitious Vrede farm project was meant to empower at least 100 black emerging farmers with five cows each as part of a government initiative to diversify the market and open avenues for new entrants.
Meanwhile the provincial department of agriculture has maintained that the project will be resuscitated for the benefit of local farming communities.