The controversy around Hlaudi Motsoeneng has escalated after he was unexpectedly reinstated as acting chief operations officer at the SABC.
South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) board chairperson Ben Ngubane told the Mail & Guardian on Monday that while Motsoeneng had been removed from his post at a board meeting on Tuesday last week when he was not present, the decision now appeared to have been reversed.
"The deputy board chairperson Thami Ka Plaatjie has withdrawn the letter he wrote to the shareholder [Communications Minister Dina Pule] to tell her Motsoeneng had been removed by the board," said Ngubane. "The minister will have to respond and it is a toss-up about what will happen."
The final straw that apparently led to the removal last week of Motsoeneng from his top job role was a massive row between him and powerful board member Cedric Gina, which one board member described as "really ugly".
Another gripe against Motsoeneng by the board was his handling of a report he commissioned to look more deeply into the allegations contained in a Special Investigating Unit (SIU) probe. Some board members complained Motsoeneng was using this report against them to leverage their support for his permanent appointment to the chief operations officer post.
Board members alleged some of them were accused in the report of not declaring their business interests, which they said was untrue. The report also accused them of not taking action as they were the accounting officers, yet vital memorandums revealed the actions taken by the board were overlooked in the report.
The M&G understands Motsoeneng commissioned the contentious report with the board's permission. It has also been alleged the report cost the SABC R7-million but board members told the M&G they were unaware of how much it cost as the report was delegated to management.
Neither Gina nor Motsoeneng would comment on the row between them at a board meeting. "There was this huge altercation between Hlaudi and Cedric," said a board member about the SABC board meeting that took place on February 21.
Gina accused Motsoeneng of spreading a malicious rumour about him, which he denied. Gina is the president of the powerful National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. His row with Motsoeneng followed unsubstantiated claims made two weeks ago to the M&G that Gina had been involved in setting up a 24-hour news channel with the politically connected Gupta family on the DStv satellite platform.
Allegations were further made that Gina might have received a cut from the deal. Gina vigorously disputed the claim and the M&G found nothing to back it up.
Motsoeneng has received the full backing from Ngubane, allegedly because of Motsoeneng's strong stand against corruption. Ngubane has frequently defended him from attacks by those who believe he should not occupy the key role because he does not have a matric.
Motsoeneng was accused of censorship by his editorial staff in recent months. This was after he pulled a satirical animated Fish & Chips Co television advert featuring President Jacob Zuma's family, cancelled a Metro FM talk show on the elective conference at Mangaung at the last minute and canned an interview with cartoonist Zapiro, aka Jonathan Shapiro, because he believed the programmes could offend Zuma or the ANC.
Board members were apparently also unhappy that Motsoeneng took the decision to expand its relationship with the Gupta-owned New Age newspaper, as revealed by the M&G last month. The SABC planned to involve New Age in a monthly programme on its Sunday Live current affairs programme in the early evening on SABC1, despite the controversy raging over the newspaper's involvement on the SABC's Morning Live slot. Three of the country's state-owned companies – Transnet, Eskom and Telkom – have paid millions of rands to bankroll the business breakfasts, which benefitted the New Age.
As a result of the growing unhappiness with Motsoeneng's conduct, board took the unprecedented step of cancelling its appearance before the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications to call an unscheduled board meeting in Cape Town. It was at this meeting where it promptly removed Motsoeneng, sending him back to his old post as the group executive of stakeholder relations and provinces.
There was no voting on the removal of Motsoeneng from the top post and consensus was reached by the board. A board member described Motsoeneng's removal by the board as something resembling "a kangaroo court".
The meeting was said to be fraught with tension as Ngubane was informed about the unexpected board meeting but refused to attend, according to board sources. It is understood Ngubane had been warned about what was going down at the meeting.
In light of Ngubane's absense, Ka Plaatjie convened the board meeting held in the Crystal Towers hotel in Century City on Tuesday morning. The M&G was informed that Motsoeneng was also not present at the board meeting.
Some members of Parliament's communications portfolio committee felt it was unacceptable they were stood up at short notice on Tuesday, as the explanation offered that "the SABC was not ready" was unsatisfactory.
Congress of the People (Cope) MP Juli Kilian told the M&G they only received notification at midnight on Monday that the board would no longer be appearing before the following morning. Cope is now calling for the dissolution of the SABC board and a forensic investigation of the broadcaster's books. Kilian said her party would also approach the Public Protector's office to investigate the SABC. "The sudden axing of Hlaudi Motsoeneng will not cure the SABC of its ills," she said.
Pule's spokesperson Siya Qoza confirmed the minister had also planned to attend the parliamentary meeting, before it was suddenly cancelled. "The minister had made arrangements to honour Tuesday's meetings," he said. Pule last week attended a conference in Barcelona.
Board members are expecting to hold a meeting with Pule this week. A board member said Motsoeneng could have been removed illegally as he had been acting in the post for over a year and might be able to get the job back as legal processes were not followed.
The M&G could not reach former SABC executive Mvuzo Mbebe, whose claim that he was promised the job of chief operations officer by former communications minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri apparently prevented the broadcaster from appointing a person to the post permanently. Board members said they dif not know why the matter was not yet resolved, as Mbebe occupied the lucrative post of Africa Cup of Nations chief executive.