The SABC has been under fire for its sorry situation for a long time. Can the new CEO fix it? Peta Krost Maunder asks the woman in the hot seat in an exclusive interview in The Media.
Lulama Mokhobo, who has taken over the reins at the SABC, has mostly shut up the naysayers who have not stopped for years. Suddenly, the unions are not slamming management and the staff seems hopeful about the future. And, for the most part, the press is finding it difficult to lambast her…
Known by her friends as ‘Sis Lulu’, she is down-to-earth and is clearly passionate and determined to do her job properly. Those who know her and have worked with her say she is the right person at the right time for SABC. “As the first woman CEO of the national broadcaster, Lulama comes with healing hands and will heal what is broken at the SABC,” says Clare O’Neil, an SABC board member who has worked closely with Mokhobo in the past.
Mokhobo has a reputation for success when taking on ‘problem children’ both in the media and corporate world. “It is my curse, my destiny and my anointing,” she says, chuckling. “My entire working life has been a challenge,” she explains. “I have never never had a comfortable job.”
But taking on this ‘broken beast’ is not a task many would relish. “I had this crazy voice in my head that said this organisation can be so much better,” she says. “I stepped away from SABC and saw it deconstruct and I know instinctively that if I work from a space of ethics and integrity, and ensure the right people are in the right positions, it can be fixed. I have just got to do it. I can’t allow this institution to die. That would be criminal.”
There appears to be a tangible shift in the corridors with her arrival. “The unions and the SABC management are finding each other,” Mokhobo explains. “The aggressive negative relationship has died down. I don’t believe unions have to stand on street corners to have their say. I believe if we inform them in advance of our direction, strategy, our balance sheets and budgets, they will understand what the scenario is and we can negotiate accordingly.” She says she has even accepted offers from some union leaders to give her some guidance on how best to run the SABC.
Mokhobo is determined to surround herself by the people who are “passionate and competent”.
“I think it is very important to have lots of crazy people fixing this organisation,” she says, with a wry smile and glint in her eye. “In all seriousness, though, the days of breeching corporate governance at SABC are gone and I need a team who get that and are going to provide the goods professionally.”
Mokhobo has a wealth of experience in broadcasting that goes back to Bop TV days in the early 1980s and includes being part of the team of eight that set up e.tv. She was behind what she calls a “revolution in education technology” that led to bringing curriculum-based educational television to the SABC. She was CEO of Urban Brew, SABC’s biggest content provider, for years before she was employed as SABC group executive for public broadcast services in 2005.
When she was being interviewed for the position as CEO, she told them upfront that they might not want to hire her because of a controversial situation with the mining company she had been involved with. “The board knew about it and the credibility of the person we were dealing with and it did not dissuade us, particularly because she had been behind exposing the wrongdoing in the company,” says O’Neil.
“You can call me Mrs Governance,” says Mokhobo, “as this is my second marriage surname. I follow the correct path, no matter what. I believe in transparency. In the past, the unions were kept in the dark here and this was unacceptable. People who do that are usually lying through their teeth,” she says. “It is easy to reveal your books if you work with integrity. And then, if you make a mistake, you admit it, apologise and then fix it. Simple!”
Mokhobo, at the time of this interview, had only been at the helm for one month, but there is a real sense of her already having her finger on the pulse. This is surprising, considering that she started at the end of the fiscal year and she has literally had meeting after meeting with hordes of documents and reports to read from day one. She is not getting much sleep because she is resolute: “By this time next year, the SABC will be 100% on track. This is a highly sustainable organisation that can declare profits and that shareholders can be proud of.”
Mokhobo – said to be an astute content person with a sharp business mind – is clear the most critical issue is SABC’s financial situation.
“First off, we have to enable our sales team to do their jobs well and, to do this, they need a schedule that is nailed down,” she says. Until now, many sports games were not scheduled and either delayed or placed in the slot of hugely popular soapies and ad revenue was lost. “This is the worst thing you can do. Then you land up using credit notes and losing money and credibility.”
So, following a strategy session with those in this sporting code, the fixtures will be laid in stone. “Then we can bed down sponsorships as well.”
She explains that with the television sporting rights being so expensive, they have to mitigate the expense with big revenue. “We will no longer be reactive but proactive and seriously negotiate price, which is so much easier well in advance,” she says. “We can demand more because we get the massive audiences. If done properly, sport will make a lot of money. The new culture has started.”
Mokhobo admits that cost cutting is necessary but “only in the right places, not like in the past where cuts were made where they shouldn’t have been”. One of these old cuts that is still smarting was to the marketing budget. “This was a big mistake and a sacrifice that is regrettable.” Now, she says, marketing and sales will be restructured to make sure it is effectively working for the broadcaster. “The marketing managers will fall within each channel but will be overseen by the central head of marketing (still to be appointed), while the sales team will be centralised. Marketing will fall under Anton Heunis, the group executive of commercial enterprises.
But, since the new SABC board has been in place, sales have risen steadily. O’Neil says that there is a 16% projected sales growth over last year for television and an 8% growth for radio. So, there is money coming in but obviously much more is needed.
There has also been a restructure of the SABC’s top echelon; it has been streamlined for fast and decisive work. “The restructure has brought a level of sanity as a lot of executives have resigned, leaving room for the right people to be hired,” she says.
In terms of moving forward, she explains that they are in the process of working through the turnaround strategy that was put in place to right the wrongs. They are implementing recommendations raised in the auditor-general’s report.
She is determined to pay back the government loan rapidly. Having loaned R1-billion, SABC has already paid R100-million and intends to hand over another lump sum soon.
Mokhobo is aware of the criticism of the SABC from the production sector and the huge programming expectation that will follow the digital migration. “Productions are expensive and not necessarily revenue generating. If programmes are dull, we cannot sell ads so that is out of the question.”
She intends “re-educating the industry” in a workshop with the production sector. “We will explain where we are going and what we are doing and find out how they can help us with the content,” she says. “I am putting the ball firmly in their court to see what they will deliver.”
Mokhobo is very clear that programmes will only be aired if they espouse healthy values. “As the public broadcaster, it is up to us to change the value systems of this country to something (that furthers) nation building. Our role is to rebuild a fractured society. By the time we are done, this will be a truly public service oriented broadcaster that helped to facilitate change in this country. What exists ain’t good and we won’t rest until it is fixed. It is up to us to encourage a true sense of national pride and people who don’t feel threatened in their own homes or on the street. If we achieve this, we have done our work.”
A leader in best practice
More than that, Mokhobo is also determined to turn SABC into a best practice public broadcast service. She says, right now the BBC holds that title but SABC works with many more variables, not to mention languages, but can still do it.
One of the unpleasant issues facing Mokhobo is the perception that SABC is a mouthpiece of the ruling party. She says: “I believe it is just a perception and not reality. Invariably, we have to hold the ministers to account for their portfolios and delivery and they have to explain to the public.”
And if it is about journalists being too soft on interviews, the CEO announces that this will change because “we are looking at bringing in at least four highly credible interviewers who are well-known on-air with experience on the international news networks.”
Prior to Mokhobo’s employment, there was talk of a major consultation process around editorial policies. “We are on it,” she says. “We are spending substantial time reviewing this. We are also going to test the needs of South Africans and hold public workshops with the likes of SOS (Support Public Broadcasting) and other related groups. We will go on a roadshow and test the markets.”
Another one of the problems from the past she is dealing with is the findings of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) that SABC brought in – as requested by the auditor general’s findings – to root out corruption. “We are already implementing what the SIU found and, while there have been arrests, more will follow. In some cases, people were wrongfully accused due to a lack of understanding of their roles but where there have been real cases, we have been tough.”
The SABC has been lambasted in the press for wasteful expenditure but, she says, in many cases it was necessary. “However, we will not tolerate any wastage – there is no place for this at SABC.”
Mokhobo is clearly determined and, on the face of it, she is on top of things after a very short time. She has laid her intentions on the table, allowing us to keep a close eye on what she has accomplished. Can she heal this wounded organisation? Time will tell.
This story was first published in the April 2012 issue of The Media magazine.