Former SABC public broadcasting division chief Lulama Mokhobo is emerging ever more strongly as the government’s candidate to succeed acting chief executive Robin Nicholson, raising further questions about state interference in the broadcaster.
SABC board chairperson Ben Ngubane told Parliament this week that Nicholson “is not legal” in his post, leaving the corporation vulnerable to litigation. Nicholson told the Mail & Guardian this was because Ngubane had not signed a letter delegating authority to him.
Some board members claim that the real reason Ngubane has not signed off on Nicholson’s appointment is that Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda has publicly expressed the desire to have him removed and replaced by Mokhobo.
SABC board members who asked to see Mokhobo’s curriculum vitae were allegedly told there was no need to view it, as “the shareholder” (Nyanda) had decided to appoint her to the position. Mokhobo was shortlisted for the post of chief executive by the interim board, led by Irene Charnley. But, in a controversial move, the interim board opted for Solly Mokoetle shortly before the current board assumed office in January this year, without leaving it to choose its own chief executive.
This week board members told the M&G that Cedric Gina, the president of metal union Numsa, who also sits on the board, had informed them that Mokhobo’s appointment to replace Nicholson had been decided by “the shareholder”.
Gina brushed off the allegation, saying he was an “independent person with his own mind”.
Asked if she was interested in the job, Mokhobo said: “Honestly, I can’t comment.”
Nicholson was asked to stand in for Mokoetle, who was suspended as chief executive seven weeks ago and faces 17 charges, including one of failing to deliver the SABC’s turnaround strategy.
‘Not much room for optimism’
This week board members said the impetus for Mokhobo to take the post had not gone away. Asked why this was the case, when former deputy board chairperson Felleng Sekha had said Nicholson was doing “an excellent job”, a board member whispered to the M&G at the tea table in Parliament: “Because the shareholder has decided it will happen.”
Nyanda was on a trip to Egypt with President Jacob Zuma. He therefore missed the sorry spectacle of SABC board members being berated in Parliament this week by members of the communications portfolio committee, including its chairperson, Ismail Vadi.
The committee said that it could not receive presentations of the board’s performance review for the current year because of its dismal failure to submit relevant documents.
“The committee believes there is not much room for optimism about the affairs of the corporation,” said Vadi. “It has also noted the correspondence from the president accepting the resignations, with immediate effect, of four members of the board.”
Vadi said the committee felt the board had failed to provide coherent leadership and to ensure proper corporate governance of the SABC.
“The committee believes that, with the four resignations, a greater responsibility rests on the shoulders of the remaining members of the board to ensure its smooth functioning,” Vadi said. “Participation in the board under these circumstances should be seen as a national service.”
The infighting that has paralysed the board, and the subsequent four resignations, was not broached during the parliamentary hearings.
Infighting on the board began in earnest when Ngubane appointed Phil Molefe as head of news in May, without other board members’ approval.
Mokoetle backed Ngubane, setting the board against him.
The matter was not discussed this week, as expected. A slide giving a time-line of events that led to Molefe’s appointment popped up on a screen, as if by accident, but was quickly taken down.
A meeting of the communications portfolio committee in September to discuss the functionality of the board, the appointment of the head of news and the corporation’s turnaround strategy was closed to the press. But the South African National Editors’ Forum sought an interdict to gain access to the hearings. This week’s meeting was supposed to air these critical issues.
Ngubane called once again for the communications committee to investigate the board’s problems. At the closed portfolio committee meeting he was given the chance to read out his submission on the dysfunctionality of the board, but the submission by disillusioned board members has not yet been aired in Parliament. It was approved by 10 of the 11 non-executive members at the time.
The submission lays bare the concern of other board members about political interference in the SABC’s affairs.
“It is to be noted,” states the submission, which was leaked to the M&G, “that on other occasions and prior to the shortlisting process [of Molefe], the chairperson stated to other directors, individually, that he was operating under the direct instructions of the president of the republic and that he was resolved to appoint his preferred candidate, whom he identified by name.”
The depleted SABC board could be thrown into renewed turmoil by Mokoetle’s disciplinary hearing next month. This week Mokoetle pointed out that the sudden departure of deputy board chairperson Sekha posed questions about who was charging him with dereliction of duty.
Sekha had expected to serve three months’ notice, but Zuma discharged her and the other board members who have stepped down with immediate effect.
Sekha had signed his letter of suspension, said Mokoetle, but she was no longer a board member. “Who is now taking disciplinary action against me and who is charging me?” asked Mokoetle. “All the charges against me were brought by Felleng.”
He also argued that if Mokhobo was appointed to the post of chief executive while disciplinary action was pending, it would amount to his constructive dismissal. “All I can say is that clearly somebody wants to make me very rich,” he said.
Mokoetle claimed to have drafted the turnaround strategy handed out in Parliament before his suspension, which made a mockery of the charges against him.
There were hints this week of further possible resignations, following those of Barbara Masekela, Magatho Mello, Sekha and David Niddrie in the past 10 weeks. There are now only eight non-executive directors on the board and there is concern that further resignations or absences would render meetings inquorate.