/ 5 October 2012

SABC chief takes control

SABC chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng denies that his new responsibility for news
SABC chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng denies that his new responsibility for news

Until recently, all core business at the public broadcaster has fallen under the SABC's group chief executive, Lulama Mokhobo, according to SABC insiders.

The board's decision, which has come a few months before the ANC's conference in Mangaung, has been interpreted by some in the broadcaster as a calculated strategy to ensure that an ANC faction close to President Jacob Zuma is given enough coverage. But other SABC staffers, including a board member, told the Mail & Guardian the decision had nothing to do with Mangaung and everything to do with the business interests of those close to Motsoeneng and some SABC board members.

In an interview Motsoeneng confirmed he was now in charge, but dismissed suggestions the decision had anything to do with Mangaung. Instead, he said, it was in line with the SABC's turnaround strategy.

Mokhobo, according to the new structure seen by the M&G, is responsible for legal and regulatory affairs, stakeholders and communications, procurement and special projects.

Motsoeneng, who is said to be close to SABC board chairperson Ben Ngubane and Zuma, denied he was taking orders from ANC leaders who wanted to influence coverage in favour of a particular faction in the ANC. He dismissed claims that he was behind the earlier decision to ban expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema from both radio and TV news.

"When I give instructions [to news managers] it is about fairness. The person in charge of news is Jimi Matthews. Any decision which is taken regarding the news comes from him. I don't interfere. My focus is on operations. [My role] is to make news more interesting. That's not interfering. Our interference is to make sure the news is appealing. I would call [Jimi Matthews] to say: 'Your news is boring. Couldn't you get something better,'" said Motsoeneng.

His detractors in the SABC believe that he and not Mokhobo is the real reason why Phil Molefe was suspended as head of news.

"He [Motsoeneng] is the enforcer of a particular faction. Even Phil had to be removed. He was asking too many questions about the apparent interference in news. He was saying that news is independent.

"The chief executive knows nothing. She is taking the flak. That's not where the real battle is. It's a smokescreen. Ask yourself why Phil [has been] at home for such a long time? Why put him on special leave for such a long time? Why pay and increase his salary? There is pressure to include some ANC leaders on TV every day. Sometimes they [ANC leaders] are abusive," said a senior executive, who preferred to remain anonymous.

A board member, who asked not to be named, claimed that Motsoeneng had taken over the running of the broadcaster from Mokhobo.

"The CEO [Mokhobo] is not running the show, Hlaudi is. She is just a token. No self-respecting CEO will allow something like that. Ngubane and other board members operate through him. It serves their purpose that he is there."

However Mokhobo dismissed sugestions that she was not in charge at the public broadcaster. She said  that Motsoeneng was responsible for operations at the SABC. "Historically COO's at the SABC have been doing this. There is nothing sinister about it. I am heading a R 5-billion driven organisation. For me to be able to deliver, I need people to run with the organisation," she said.

Poor internal controls
Meanwhile, the broadcaster this week received a qualified audit report by the auditor general for the second time in a row. According to a board member who asked not to be named, the broadcaster was unable to account for R862-million of its budget.

Last year, the auditor general criticised the broadcaster for poor internal controls and compliance with the Public Finance Management Act.

Although Mokhobo told Parliament this week that the SABC had managed to meet most of its turnaround targets and by the end of 2011-2012 had accelerated the repayment of a R1.47-billion loan under government guarantee, SABC insiders said the broadcaster had done too little to improve its financial affairs.

"Nothing much has happened since the auditor general gave us a qualified audit last year. The SABC continues to operate in violation of the Act," said the board member.

However, Motsoeneng said that, since the board had endorsed the new organisational structure in July, there had been some noticeable improvements.

These included getting rid of some of the "dead wood" who had been earning high salaries, improving employees' salaries – the board approved R45-million to raise the wages of those who were underpaid, as proposed by Motsoeneng – and extending freelancers' contracts from one to three years.

Motsoeneng pointed out that radio, TV and sports used to have four general managers, but this had been reduced to two.

"Some managers did not have personal assistants; now they have them. We are turning around the SABC, not only on paper, but practically," he said.