Muthambi's plans spell turbulence ahead for SABC's Motsoeneng

The SABC's acting chief executive officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The SABC's acting chief executive officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Newly appointed Communications Minister Faith Muthambi is tightening her grip on the public broadcaster, and controversial acting chief executive operations officer is directly in the firing line. 

Two weeks ago, Muthambi raised eyebrows when she told a Sunday newspaper about her plans to centralise control of the SABC in her office. She has since explained to Parliament why she is calling for a review of the shareholder compacts between the SABC and the state. The minister of communications acts as the state’s shareholder at the SABC.

Explaining her plans to Parliament’s oversight committees on communication and telecommunications and postal services, Muthambi decried the many different instruments that regulate the SABC. Among them is the broadcasting Act, the charter, the delegation of authority framework, protocol and corporate governance in the public sector, the companies’ Act, the memorandum of incorporation and the shareholder compact.

She said these have all made it difficult for the government to intervene when there is a crisis at the public broadcaster.

“Boards have been disbanded and ministers did not last with regard to what has been happening at the SABC. The past Parliament attempted to deal with the issue by replacing the boards, and that was not the solution,” said Muthambi.

She said it was critical to know that the process to appoint, terminate or suspend a director of the SABC is a long process and in respect of the nine executive members of the board, the broadcasting Act required that they be appointed by the president, on the advice of the National Assembly following on a form of nomination process involving the participation of the public.

The removal of a board member also followed a similar lengthy process.

‘Cumbersome’ process
Muthambi said attempts to intervene in this fashion previously had not yielded the desired results.

“The length of time, the process it takes is cumbersome and sometimes it means the problems of the public broadcaster will continue to fester and the leadership crisis remains leaving the SABC rudderless ... The government cannot therefore decisively and urgently intervene and take corrective action whenever there’s a crisis.”

Muthambi referred to leadership problems at SABC, saying that even the auditor general found there were serious problems with the leadership and the accounting authority, and inadequacies on how committees of the board performed their duties.

But Muthambi said that while the SABC remained “dysfunctional” there was a better way to deal with it.

“It remains dysfunctional and requires urgent attention from me as the shareholder ... Whatever intervention it is, it must recognise that the SABC is a public broadcaster and must act independently from government ... So we need a balanced approach to deal with this problem.”

Independent SABC
Muthambi revealed that as a ministry, the communications department was looking at other countries that have respected public broadcasters that perform on their public mandate. These included the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

“It appears that these countries have sought to balance the independence of the public broadcaster with governance requirements by separating the appointment and removal of board members from the reporting function ... We will study how these jurisdictions have dealt with the issue of accountability and ensuring that the public broadcaster remains independent,” she vowed.

Muthambi listed among the “urgent tasks”: 

  • Reviewing the current model of the public broadcasting system; 
  • restructuring the SABC to prioritise public services in digital broadcasting and the opportunities that digital broadcasting brings to the SABC; 
  • and increasing the funding of the SABC, including ring-fencing the funding to be targeted towards public programming and to formulate a long-term sustainability strategy for the SABC. 

Muthambi assured Parliament’s portfolio committees on communication and telecommunications and postal services that she was paying an urgent attention to the SABC.

She was frank about its problems, despite the chairperson of the SABC board, Zandile Tshabalala, and ANC MPs downplaying the issues.

While a number of senior ANC members including Cabinet minsters have sought to undermine public protector Thuli Madonsela, Muthambi seemed to think highly of the public protector’s office.

Madonsela made damning findings about the SABC, especially Motsoeneng, whom she found had misrepresented his qualifications and recommended that he be replaced.

“I have instructed the SABC to fully respond to the issues raised by the public protector. They will be submitting a report to me before the July 20 so that I can satisfy myself that there is full compliance with the public protector’s report,” Muthambi said.

“I said to them we are concerned of the state of affairs when it comes to this matter. And these matters are in the public domain. And more so, the public protector is a chapter nine institution and whatever they have recommended has to be complied with. We cannot be seen as an entity that doesn’t comply with the public protector’s recommendations for remedial action,” she said.

Muthambi revealed that the SABC board has obtained legal advice on the implementation of the recommendations of the public protector’s report.

Nevertheless, she committed herself to ensuring that the governance issues at the SABC are dealt with.

“As a shareholder, that’s my responsibility to do so.”

Board performance
Muthambi pointed out that Madonsela gave the SABC six months to implement her recommendation, vowing that all the actions put forward would be finalised within the six months, which ends on August 16 2014. 

She said she also wanted to review the performance of the board of directors, which would include determination of the number of board members going forward.

Reviewing the current governance policies of the SABC and ensuring a stable management of the SABC are some of her priorities.

“You remember that for the last three financial years, there have been issues raised about leadership of the SABC board ... So, it’s not about bringing people who are smart to deal with the SABC but we need to also start dealing with the structural issues that are there,” said Muthambi.

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