The unseemly infighting among members of the SABC’s board of directors has spilled its guts into the public arena, with controversial acting (or former acting?) COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng at the centre of the bloodbath.
Last week, SABC group communications head Kaizer Kganyago announced that Motsoening had been given the boot. The news was greeted with jubilation by the civil society, politicians and NGOs. The man had been a divisive influence within the public broadcaster, and without. And most believed he would not be capable of implementing the turnaround strategy the SABC so desperately needs.
Not a week later, and once more Motsoeneng was making headlines. This time, the news was that SABC board chairman Dr Ben Ngubane had reinstated him. Ngubane, the Mail & Guardian reported, had not been part of the hastily-convened board meeting in Cape Town in which Motsoeneng was given his marching orders.
The board had, at the same time, cancelled its appearance before the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications at the last minute.
“It seems that some members of the board were unhappy with the contents of the report Mr Motsoeneng had compiled detailing the status of the Special Investigating Unit’s progress on investigations and charges against former and current SABC board members and former and current employees,” the Democratic Alliance’s communications spokeswoman, Marian Shinn, said at the time. She also noted that Ngubane declined to attend the Cape Town meeting.
The SOS ‘Save our SABC’ Coalition says it is “dismayed at the ongoing instability at the SABC and believes strongly that Parliament must play its role as the SABC’s key oversight structure”.
It says Parliament must “ensure the SIU report is tabled and that its content and recommendations are rigorously debated, assessed and transparently acted upon. Further, Parliament must boldly address the ongoing instability at Board level. The Coalition notes once again the critical information revealed by the resignation letters of a number of Board members since the Board took office in 2010. These include serious problems with corporate governance and ministerial interference”.
Fast forward to Monday and a report in The New Age in which Ngubane said, “the status quo” had been restored. “The decision to re-instate Hlaudi was made by my deputy Thami ka Plaatjie after he decided to withdraw his letter to the minister. The status quo remains. I’m happy if Hlaudi continues with the same energy to address various issues at the SABC including previous audit qualifications, staff morale and the relationships with the unions. I hope that this work continues unabated,” Ngubane told the newspaper.
Motsoeneng confirmed his reinstatement, telling The New Age he was “glad to be back” and “the SABC is bigger than any individual and I continue to remain loyal to the public broadcaster”.
Apparently Motsoeneng was reinstated after the deputy board chairperson Thami Ka Plaatjie – the man who convened the Cape Town meeting in the first place – had withdrawn the letter he wrote to communications minister Dina Pule to tell her Motsoeneng had been removed by the board. The Mail & Guardian reported Ngubane saying, “The minister will have to respond and it is a toss-up about what will happen.”
Shock. Outrage. Disbelief. But before the slow-moving Pule had a chance to respond, the other faction of the SABC responded to the reports quite firmly. In a statement issued by board member Lumko Mtimde, the board outlined the legal reasons why the original decision to fire Motsoening should stand.
“It is critical to note that, since then, the Board has not met to rescind this resolution. It cannot be then that the Board resolution to relieve the former acting COO of his acting duties has been rescinded. The so called ‘withdrawal’ of letters signed by the Deputy Chairman Thami ka Plaatjie (on behalf of the Board) does not have any effect on the Board resolution taken at a properly convened Board meeting. The resolution stands until rescinded by another properly constituted Board meeting,” Mtimde said.
Mtimde said the “special board meeting” at which the decision to demote Motsoeneng back to his old job was legally convened, and that a quorum of board members attended. All statutory requirements were met, he said “and empowered the meeting to include on the Agenda the issue of the Acting Chief Operations Officer (deferred from previous Board meeting)”.
Mtimde said the board resolved to release Motsoeneng from his job as acting COO, and appoint Mike Siluma in the acting capacity. But Siluma himself resigned on Friday, and will leave the SABC at the end of April.
Mtimde said Ngubane was informed of the decision, and accepted it on 26 February, the morning after the special board meeting was held. Ngubane apparently asked that the decision not be implemented until Monday, 4 March. But the board said this would “not be helpful in terms of the stability of the Corporation. The GCEO subsequently implemented the decision and a courtesy letter (not a statutory requirement) was drafted to inform the shareholder. Another letter was also drafted for the former acting COO, subsequent to him having been formally informed in person”.
“The report (if accurate) in The New Age is regrettable as neither the Chairman nor the Deputy Chairman nor both have the power or authority to unilaterally change a Board resolution,” Mtimde said. “No such provision exists in the Broadcasting Act of 1999, Companies Act of 2008, Articles of Association / draft Memorandum of Incorporation. The Board will meet in order to seek clarity from the Chairman and the Deputy Chairman regarding the newspaper reports”.
So, right now, is Motsoeneng in or out? Not even the board seems to know. Either way, the episode has highlighted the dysfunctional operations of the board, and the clear divisions between certain members.
It is a situation that has damaged the reputation of the public broadcaster, and certainly one that doesn’t show the board members in a good light either. The DA believes it is Ngubane who should go “in the interests of stability at the public broadcaster”. Shinn says it is clear “he does not enjoy the confidence of his board colleagues” and that the “shambolic state of affairs” does no credit to the board or the SABC.
“But Dr Ngubane’s enthusiastic support of Mr Motsoeneg, who is unqualified and unsuited for his post, is the core issue. Dr Ngubane is responsible for this sorry state of affairs and must be removed at once,” she said.
“The SABC is in a delicate phase of its turnaround strategy that would restore it to good governance, profitability and stability; all of which are critical for the successful transition to digital terrestrial television (DTT) by mid-2015. It is vital that the board be guided by someone competent to oversee this strategy.”
The ANC was clear in its Mangaung resolutions where the SABC is concerned. It wants action, and it wants “The series of crises at the public broadcaster reflect a lack of leadership, lack of accountability and poor management. In confronting the crisis more emphasis has been placed on reporting processes without a corresponding attention to holding those responsible to account for the financial and organisational maladministration that has brought the public broadcasting institution to the crisis,” it said in the policy document
“Such a situation has prevailed because institutional structures responsible for oversight have not been effective. There has also been an overlap in oversight roles enabling he public broadcaster to forum shop,” it said.
SOS agrees, and has called on Parliament to find answers to a number of questions. What are the recommendations of the SIU report? What are the reasons behind the sudden removal and then reinstatement of Mr. Motsoeneng? How are internal board conflicts impacting on the broadcaster? And when is it going to address issues raised in Board members resignation letters?
The question now remains if government and the communications minister has the will to change the status quo at the SABC so that it truly fulfils its mandate as the public broadcaster, and gets on with the job instead of playing politics to the detriment of its major shareholders: the public.