SEVERAL consortiums and companies - some claiming to have the support of the African National Congress - are bidding to buy Independent News & Media SA, the publisher of The Star, The Cape Times and other titles, from its heavily indebted Irish parent.
The sale of the assets comes as Independent News & Media is faced with paying a corporate bond of R4.2bn by 2014. The Dublin-based group is expected to issue a statement soon about talks with potential bidders.
Its chairman, telecoms billionaire Dennis O'Brien, is reported to be in South Africa. The company did not respond to questions yesterday.
Former Independent News & Media chairman Tony O'Reilly bought the papers in 1994 with the blessing of former president Nelson Mandela. Some of the groups bidding now are using ANC national treasurer Mathews Phosa as a reference to elicit support. But Mr Phosa yesterday denied he was involved in, or supported, any bid.
"I am not involved. Everyone out there knows that Groovin Nchabaleng and Iqbal Surve (chairman of Sekunjalo) are looking into this thing. I don't want to be the conduit of any information, but I am not bidding."
Mr Phosa said he was in favour of Independent News & Media SA returning to local ownership. "I don't see why we have to continue to be puppets of foreign owners," he said.
A Sekunjalo spokesman would neither confirm nor deny its involvement yesterday.
Mr Nchabaleng, who is being advised by international banking group HSBC, was part of Koni Media's bid to buy a chunk of media house Avusa in 2007. Former president Thabo Mbeki's adviser, Titus Mofolo, was also involved in the failed bid.
Mr Nchabaleng and Mr Mofolo could not be reached yesterday.
A consortium with the backing of Ethos Private Equity is tipped to include Caxton Publishing, which may be interested in buying free-sheet titles. Ethos spokeswoman Chelsea Wilkinson said: "We can neither confirm, nor deny, nor comment on any transaction until a public announcement has been made."
The Gupta family, publishers of The New Age newspaper, who have strong ties with ANC heavyweights including President Jacob Zuma, were tipped as possible owners, too. Despite repeated attempts yesterday, the family did not respond to requests for comment.
Tuwani Gumani, secretary-general of the Media Workers Association of South Africa and a trustee of a workers' trust at Independent News & Media established to buy 10%-25% of it, said the talk of political involvement made it urgent for staff to get a direct stake.
Mr Gumani said the trust was still being registered, but about 80% of Gauteng staff supported the idea and talks would be held with colleagues in Cape Town and Durban. The trust had informed management of its aims, but had received no formal reply.
Avoir Research media analyst Richard Tessendorf said any successful buyer would have to invest heavily in the company to reverse years of cost-cutting, especially of editorial staff. "Numbers such as R1.5bn for the company seem a bit low to me, especially when one compares them to its listed peers such as Avusa and Caxton."