SABC's Motsoeneng denies NUM behind decision to drop The Big Debate

SABC acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

SABC acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The SABC's acting chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, has not been shy in the past to discuss his reasons for wielding the censor's axe.

This time around, Motsoeneng has vigorously denied the story doing the rounds that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka visited him shortly before he canned the new season of the talk show The Big Debate, which might have influenced his decision. 

Motsoeneng admitted to the Mail & Guardian in the run-up to the ANC's elective conference in Mangaung in December that he had felt it was "insulting" to President Jacob Zuma to run a pre-recorded SABC interview with cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro. An irate Zapiro described Motsoeneng as "the ultimate nutcase deployment".

Now the ongoing issue of censorship at the SABC has rolled around again, and canning The Big Debate as it was about to air its second season last month has caused an uproar. 

The producers of the show say they were caught unawares as SABC group chief executive Lulama Mokhobo had given a keynote address at the annual general meeting of the Support Public Broadcasting (SOS) Coalition in April this year. In her speech, she had described The Big Debate as an example of its excellent programming, which supported its objectives of "total citizen empowerment".

Policy matter
Motsoeneng was adamant this week it was not his decision to can the new season of the show, made up of 10 episodes.

"I have never talked to NUM about the show.
I don't know how NUM comes in on this matter," Motsoeneng told the M&G.

"This was a decision of the SABC. No one came to see me about The Big Debate. So many people come and see me all the time. I talk to Lesiba but he has never talked to me about The Big Debate. I didn't even know NUM was featured in the first show."

Motsoeneng said the decision to pull the season was a "policy matter" from SABC, even though SABC had aired the entire first season.

"The show is current affairs and news, and we cannot outsource these matters. What we know, and we are all in agreement, is that we can in no way outsource editorial. The Jimi Matthews team [Matthews is acting group executive of news and current affairs] is responsible for editorial, news and current affairs. We should not outsource news, and this particular show was funded by two donor organisations."

Sheshoka laughed out loud when he heard there were rumours that he had managed to influence Motsoeneng to can The Big Debate.

"I subscribe to the notion of free speech. To be fair, I did have a small problem with the show because they asked us to bring 20 people for the audience and they allowed the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union [Amcu] to bring two busloads of people. But I spoke to the producers about this, and I did not go to Hlaudi," said Sheshoka.

"Anyway, Hlaudi and I have not been on talking terms for more than a year since the SABC flighted a semi-pornographic film and I issued a statement about it."

NUM general secretary Frans Baleni could not be reached for comment.​

Hot topics
eNCA snapped up the new season of The Big Debate and the first episode flighted this week, showing the mine unions in talks on workers' rights.

SABC insiders told the M&G that the decision to can the show, produced by Broad Daylight Films Foundation with donor funding, had "brought shame" to the public broadcaster.

Siki Mgabadeli hosted the episode, which featured a lively debate between the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) general secretary Irvin Jim, Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa, Baleni and others. 

It was thought-provoking content, with Mgabadeli asking if NUM was the true voice of the workers of South Africa or just the "toy telephone" between the workers and the ANC.

So how did the entire first season of The Big Debate manage to flight without a hitch on SABC2?

SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said the public broadcaster had let the first season "slip through the net", and it was pulled because it was outsourced, which meant that the broadcaster did not have editorial control. "We had to do something about it and we stopped the show," said Kganyago.

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill has been in journalism for more years than she cares to remember. She loves a good story as much now as she did when she first started. The only difference is today she hopes she is giving something back to the country. Read more from Glynnis Underhill

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