When she took her place in the hot seat at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), chief executive officer Lulama Mokhobo knew she was taking on a thankless task and that she was going to be stressed and kept on her toes constantly.
Eighteen months later, she says: “Any CEO being here who is not nervous at any given time was created on another planet. The importance of this institution to the country and the continent is too intense not to worry. It is critical not to be blasé or too relaxed. The minute I am able to relax, it is time to move on from here.”
And her performance and that of the public broadcaster is constantly under the magnifying glass, rarely with any resulting positive press.
Mokhobo admits that every day at the SABC there are crises, big or small, and sometimes it is not easy to decide “whether to resuscitate something or flush it out”. But, she insists that as a whole, the “SABC is much healthier” than when she started.
That is not the opinion of the auditor-general (AG) – according to the SABC’s annual report that was tabled in parliament recently – who issued a disclaimer of opinion on the SABC audit (due to an inability to gather the information needed). AG Terence Nombembe found that in 2012-13, the SABC had recorded irregular expenditure of R106.3 million.
He reported that the SABC recorded expenditure of R1.58 billion without supporting documentation during this financial year. He noted there was no evidence of collection of TV licence fees worth R913.8 million and the SABC’s financial statement did not adhere to reporting standards. He stated the SABC did not review its internal audit function effectively and experienced leadership instability while its accounting authority did not exercise its oversight responsibility effectively.
Broadcast researcher and policy analyst Kate Skinner says the SABC’s ‘disclaimer’ points to very serious financial and governance problems at the SABC. “It simply can’t be business as usual. We need all stakeholders, including SABC management, the board, parliament and the ministry, to admit to the seriousness of the situation and then to move swiftly forward to put clear, enforceable finance and administration systems in place. The SABC must be held to account. In fact members of management who made promises after the last qualified audit must be called to Parliament to explain why the situation has deteriorated still further.”
Mokhobo does not believe the national broadcaster has deteriorated; in fact, she reiterates the financial health of the SABC. When she took on her position, the public broadcaster owed Nedbank just under R1 billion as part of a government loan and by the end of September, this was to have been paid off.
“We have done well in terms of our revenue, considering we are in a recession that doesn’t seem to be ending soon. Our shortfalls haven’t been as huge as they were in the past and we will come out with a profit of R330 million after tax.”
Mokhobo insists that the problems raised by in the AG’s report were largely due to staff incompetency and lack of training.
“The bottom line is when the SABC migrated from one set of accounting systems to another (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles to International Financial Reporting Standards), there was a significant gap in training of financial managers and a big loss of skill. So the people who were doing the reporting were not applying the rules of IFRS.”
As for the licence fees, she says the money was in and the AG could see it but it was not documented the way he expected it to be. “He wants it to be calculated on an accrual basis – so working backwards from how many households in the country and ticking off who has paid for their licence. The danger of doing this, what with the level of reluctance to pay, we will have to write off fortunes every year. Until now, we have always had a cash system.”
Nombembe was quoted as saying, “I was unable to obtain sufficient, appropriate audit evidence for journals processed to broadcasting cost, signal distribution, and linking cost, marketing cost, professional and consultancy fees and other expenditure, which in total amount to R1.6 billion, as supporting documentation could not be provided.”
Mokhobo also attributes this directly to the competencies in the department and denies allegations that she spent fortunes on consultants, saying she did have to pay for following up on Special Investigation Unit investigations and audits that were essential.
She says the “irregular expenditure” arose in paying for live content, mostly sporting fixtures, in which negotiations were protracted and finalised at the last minute and “there was not time to finalise contracts”.
Mokhobo adds: “We need to move away from this situation, but until we have access to funds that allow us to pay the exorbitant funds other broadcaster can, it will be difficult.”
She welcomes minister of communications Yunus Carrim’s task team, created to sort out these auditing issues, the funding models, governance and regulations. “Hopefully with their help, we will look a whole lot better by the end of the next financial year.”
However, she says, she is already addressing the key issue of competence through a recent skills audit. “The results provided very frightening information that explains the serious position in which the public broadcaster finds itself.
“There are vast numbers of people who are completely under-qualified and under-skilled for their positions and many of these are in very influential positions.”
Is she going to become a hatchet woman? “No, not as such,” she says. “But there has to be a huge organisational change around the country. The results have shown us exactly what needs to be done and we will need to change a lot to meet operational requirements. We also need massive upskilling programmes, which we have already started.”
She says 10 senior staffers are already doing an SABC-focused business school course. And later in the year middle management around the country will be put on a skilling and motivational programme.
She is also implementing a “proper performance management system”, she says. “Part of the problem is that people were not ‘performance managed’ and those who were told off for not doing something properly saw this as being victimised.”
Mokhobo explains that the SABC is going through a range of disciplinary processes, including some cases being heard in a court of law, while some people have lost their jobs. She says there are ongoing disciplinary hearings taking place due to people not declaring their interests. “Turns out people did not know how to make declarations so we have now simplified it, making it an automated process.”
There are many staff members who are unhappy with the status quo and have the attitude of ‘do your work and don’t get involved’.
Mokhobo believes the unhappiness could be because of the skills audit.
She emphasises that there are pockets of excellence at the SABC, and the newsrooms and sales teams are included in these. “These people will get the proper recognition they deserve,” she says. “Under these circumstances, a sense of discomfort is natural and people need to put their heads down and slog on – the rewards down the line will be worth it.”
And although the AG criticised the SABC for not delivering the expected audience percentages, Mokhobo insists this is due to incorrect data from the South African Audience Research Foundation (Saarf).
“Our advertisers have now got a greater appetite to come on board, particularly because it is now clear that the Saarf audience measurements were skewed against us, virtually ignoring the lower LSMs [SABC’s primary market]. So, while it was believed we had a massive loss of viewership, this proved not to be true.
“People must realise the SABC is not run by a bunch of crooks but by people with a commitment to the production industry and the country.”
She is well aware that there are many production houses that had to close down because they couldn’t get work from the SABC but this is going to change, with the SABC ramping up commissions to encourage new productions.
“We may not come back with a wallet the size of eight years ago, but there will be work. At the SABC, we had to deal with our own survival before reaching out to others.”
And to get back on track financially, Mokhobo says the SABC “curbed expenditure substantially”.
“It was a matter of not being able to fix things without causing pain and we saved hard.”
Marketing was one area that was starved. “This might well have harmed SABC’s image because we didn’t do anything to attract viewers. We now have five advertising agencies on board to do just that – above the line, below the line and through the line.“
An area where they didn’t scrimp was gearing up for digital terrestrial television, for which they are “completely ready”. She explains that the SABC is fully digitised and on high definition TV.
But they did launch the 24-hour news channel on the DStv bouquet without the requested government cash injection to fund it. “It is amazing what you can do if you have to.”
She says that the SABC produces enough quality content to fill much more than a 24-hour channel without an extra penny spent and they cut down on anything they could to make it happen. “It is a matter of fold or work smart and we have perfected the latter. Also, the business contract with MultiChoice provided an injection of R100 million per annum over the next five years,” she says. “Out of that, we will also introduce a second channel, an entertainment one, based on archive material.”
And as for getting into bed with MultiChoice, Mokhobo says: “They are our satellite carrier and business partner. We must all be aware that our job is to inform South Africans and provide them with information. Through MultiChoice, we will reach the rest of Africa. Big up to MultiChoice for recognising the need for different news channels and views.” And as for the launch of Africa News Network (ANN) 7 and the competition of eNCA’s five-year-old 24-hour channel, she says, “We don’t see any of them as enemies. We are the gritty grassroots news channel.”
Mokhobo has weathered the ructions and demise of the previous SABC board, worked with the acting board and (at the time of going to print) is looking forward to working with the new board. “It has been important to have a clear understanding of the different roles, the board with an oversight function and leadership in terms of broad policy and strategy but not operational. As long as we understand that separation of roles, we continue to deliver regardless of what happens. As long as we don’t muddy the waters, this plane will not spin out of control.” She believes she maintains stability and continuity at the SABC. “If I were to leave now, it would sink into chaos.”
What does she want in a board? “People with business and financial acumen and a good understanding of governance and boardroom interrelations. They should be champions in ethics and values, and need to ensure every decision is ethically and strategically based.”
She is also very clear that any new board member should leave their own agenda at home and not come to push personal or political interests. “Their main reason driving them as a board must be to ensure they come up with the best critical steps to ensure this organisation rises.”
She is very pleased with Carrim’s new role, saying he is “extremely focused and highly energetic… He clearly cares very deeply for the nation and sees the SABC as a conduit for people’s lives. He doesn’t suffer fools and expects people to deliver and has promised to deliver himself. He has come at the right time.”
She says that Carrim doesn’t have much time to make an impact because his term will finish pre-elections next year. “We can see we are now gaining momentum, what with the policy reviews, refocus of the department, and dealing with all the portfolios under him. He is very concerned with the SABC and I hope we can report on real progress during his tenure.”
As for being able to feed all the channels that will arise from digital terrestrial television, she says the SABC is working towards educational, sport, holistic health and music channels, among others. “We are very different from the commercial broadcaster because whatever we do we must tick off whether it is educational, informing people and impacting on what they do.” Mokhobo says the SABC cannot just stop at broadcasting: it has to get involved in e-commerce and be top of its game in convergence.
“For us to achieve our mandate, we have to be on every instrument able to transmit and nobody should be able to say they didn’t know something we broadcast because they didn’t have access to it.” Mokhobo is on the ICT policy review panel and is 100 percent behind this process, which “will define the future of the SABC”.
She says the SABC has completed its editorial policy review involving all stakeholders and public hearings will be held shortly.
There have been a number of incidents in which unpopular editorial decisions were made and Mokhobo says the proverbial buck stops with her. “I am the editor-in-chief and while I very seldom have to step in to make decisions, as they are made further down the line, I do if I have to.”
Responding to allegations of being the mouthpiece of the ANC, Mokhobo laughs. “Everyone, including the ANC, has expressed dissatisfaction with the SABC, so we must be doing something right.”
With the national elections in the near future, she says the SABC has policies in place and will also abide by the Independent Electoral Commission’s regulations.
As for the restrictions of the proposed Protection of State Information Bill, Mokhobo says: “It doesn’t really bother me. People have the right to privacy and the public has the right to information and it is up to us to find a way to express this so that it is meaningful for all.
“We can’t run away from the fact that the media has played a role in curbing rampant corruption and criminal activity and behind those concerned being prosecuted. At the same time, we can’t run away from the fact that lives have been destroyed because people in the media have set out to destroy them. Those people have no way to fight back. Would you want people to be able to dig into your past just because it is such an open society? I agree wrongdoers should be exposed but our legal justice system says a person is innocent until proven guilty and the media should not have the right to trample on this.”
But this doesn’t keep her awake at night. What does is “the extent to which this company needs to move from survival mode to a thriving world class company and what it will take”.
She doesn’t have an easy task and many are extremely critical about what she is doing. But few would accept this role and not give up. n