Editorial: The ‘passion’ of Motsoeneng

Not the least odd of the reasons given for the permanent appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng to the position of chief operating officer of the SABC is that given by SABC board chairperson Zandile Ellen Tshabalala at the announcement on Monday. She dismissed calls for Motsoeneng’s suspension, which opposition parties have called for on the basis of a damning public protector’s report, saying there was no “basis for a suspension, because if you were to say Hlaudi doesn’t perform, tell us. In our case, he performs”.

Tshabalala went on to hint at what she might mean by “performs”: “In many instances,” she said of Motsoeneng, “he has even gone into a role which is not his role, of raising funds for the SABC. The commercial relationships that we build are built because of people who are passionate about the SABC.” It is not clear whether everyone with an interest in seeing the SABC properly fulfil its role of public broadcaster would agree that it’s a good thing that Motsoeneng has stepped beyond his “role” and gone out looking for money to keep the broadcaster going. It seems clear, though, that the top priority for Tshabalala is Motsoeneng’s fundraising capacity – not his ability to run a broadcasting corporation with probity, fairness, honesty and in a manner that enhances its wider social role rather than turning it into the mouthpiece of the ruling faction of the ruling party.

Obviously the SABC would want to hire people who are “passionate” about the broadcaster, but that’s just one element. If their passion leads to chaos in the organisation, or brings it into disrepute, surely it is no longer a good thing to hire such people? What if it costs the SABC money? The corporation’s profits are way down – a mere R22-million for the 2012-13 financial year, against R344-million the year before. Its share of viewership is steadily dropping too.

But at least Motsoeneng is passionate about the SABC. He was so keen to work there, as the public protector’s report reveals, that he lied about not having a matric. His passion, too, led him to increase his own pay packet vastly, and to hike other salaries in the corporation to the tune of many millions of rands. And this when the SABC is so strapped for cash it has to keep going to the government to bail it out, and is struggling to maintain financial efficiency – according to the Special Investigating Unit, it wasted about R1.4-billion on deals that are probably illegitimate.

But the public protector’s report on the governance and ethics failures at the SABC is apparently of no relevance whatsoever to the process of appointing Motsoeneng full-time to a position he has held in an acting capacity, in defiance of employment rules, for three years. “The public protector has nothing to do with this,” claimed SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago, who confessed his lack of understanding: “I don’t know how the two are related.”

Right. The report says that, while acting chief operating officer, Motsoeneg misbehaved and should probably be disciplined; but that has nothing to do with whether he gets the job permanently. It must be true, then, as Kganyago said, that when you see the public protector’s report “you read what you want to read”. Or, perhaps, in his case, you don’t read it at all.

Motsoeneng has certainly “performed” in certain areas. Soon after President Jacob Zuma said he wanted to see more positive news about South Africa, Motsoeneng said he wanted the SABC to provide 70% good news. If that performance of his wasn’t embarrassing enough, he responded to the public protector’s report by having religious leaders cast out the evil spirits in the public protector’s office – on air! This action did not, however, exorcise Motsoeneng’s bad ideas, such as the compulsory “licensing” of all journalists, or his tendency to shut down on-air political commentary about the ANC.

Whatever Motsoeneng’s passionate performances, however, it may be that he was given this top job for legal and political reasons. The new minister of communications said in Parliament that she would follow the public protector’s recommendations on the SABC, but, days later, actions are taken that makes this look like an empty promise – at least when it comes to Motsoeneng himself. She may yet get to the financial and other problems, once she’s decided how often we should have the national anthem on TV.

On Thursday, and contrary to the Kganyago doctrine that the protector’s report is irrelevant, the minister said the SABC had consulted a law firm and it had cleared Motsoeneng of any “wrongdoing”. Thus she set an unnamed law firm’s view over the findings of a Chapter 9 institution.

But the minister and the SABC board chairperson are very impressed by lawyers. Amid other arcane legal complications mentioned, Tshabalala claimed that the board had to give Motsoeneng the post permanently because a letter from his lawyers (which she did not challenge in any way) said that if he’d been acting in the job for three years there was a “legitimate expectation” that he’d finally get it on a permanent basis.

We expect the public broadcaster to serve the nation as a whole, as it is mandated to do by the Constitution, not simply to be a propaganda tool of the executive, or to act as a censor on news that is inconvenient to those in power. We might also want its most prominent office bearer to be someone of integrity, not to mention managerial skill. Those, too, are legitimate expectations.

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