Is the era of parastatal paralysis over?

Looking up: The interim SABC board has quickly gone to work to address key problems at the broadcaster.  (Delwyn Verasamy)

Looking up: The interim SABC board has quickly gone to work to address key problems at the broadcaster. (Delwyn Verasamy)

The dramatic and swift overhaul of the SABC by the new board could signal that it is the first domino to fall in clearing out the rot at corrupted state-owned entities, and its path to restoration could well serve as a blueprint for other bedevilled parastatals.

An interim board took over the SABC just four months ago and has quickly gone to work to address key problems and people within the troubled organisation.

Critically, it oversaw a disciplinary process that led to the dismissal of self-proclaimed messiah and the broadcaster’s recurring nightmare, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, followed by the dismissal of chief executive James Aguma.

The interim board has reworked financial arrangements, including suspending payments to the board itself, until the broadcaster’s finances have been stabilised.

It has also overturned the previous board’s decision to challenge the public protector’s report, which made damning findings against Motsoeneng and the SABC.

“We hope we have given the country hope,” interim chairperson Khanyi­sile Kweyama told the Mail & Guardian this week.

She said the board would now pursue other findings of wrong­doing against Motsoeneng and others, as detailed in the public protector’s report. This would not necessarily mean taking the matter to the police but civil action could be taken, such as issuing summonses for monies owed, Kweyama said.

The SABC would also assist the Special Investigating Unit in its investigation of the SABC, although this is waiting to be signed off by the presidency. (See “SIU can’t act without the president’s okay”.)

The report’s findings against Motsoeneng include how he advised the board on his own salary increases, which climbed from R1.5-million a year to R2.4-million in a single year.
He was also found to have purged the organisation of his detractors, costing R29-million in settlement and legal fees.

In the case of the SABC, a parliamentary inquiry was conducted three years after the public protector’s report, although it was for other fraudulent behaviour and resulted in the parliamentary committee putting an interim board in place. The inquiry was initiated by an ad hoc committee and not the communications committee.

Former public protector Thuli Madonsela found Motsoeneng was enabled by a board that must have been corrupt or incompetent itself.

Former SABC chairperson Ben Ngubane, who only recently stepped down from Eskom amid the exposure of graft, was found to be instrumental in tailoring the job requirements for the public broadcaster’s chief operations officer specifically to accommodate Motsoeneng’s lack of matric.

The key to clearing out the rot in any institution was ensuring good governance, Kweyama said. “Good governance is absolutely critical, and a refusal to listen to anything but what is the right thing to do.”

Ensuring policies were in place, as well as consequences for breaking them, were key to this, she added.

But unlike the SABC, Eskom remains saddled with compromised individuals in executive positions, though a process similar to that followed at the SABC is now unfolding at Eskom in double time.

For Eskom, the public protector’s State of Capture report, released in November, has led directly to a parliamentary inquiry, whose terms of reference were finalised by the public enterprises committee this week.

It was determined these would be broadened to include state capture relating to various public enterprises, especially Denel and Transnet. The Gupta brothers and even President Jacob Zuma’s son, Duduzane, would be called as witnesses, it decided.

Public enterprises committee chairperson and ANC MP Zukiswa Rantho said legal experts would be brought in to conduct the interviews.

Asked whether there was a consensus among ANC MPs, Rantho said: “The ANC MPs are on board. It is them that initiated the inquiry so they are very excited to be going ahead with it.”

Phumzile van Damme, the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on communications and a member of the parliamentary committee on communications, said she had to push very hard for the inquiry into the SABC to take place. “The ANC originally didn’t want that to happen,” she said.

Former communications minister Faith Muthambi put up many barriers to prevent a probe, she said. “Gavin Davis, in the committee before me, was blocked at every turn on the issues he tried to fix there.”

For parliamentary committees to launch seemingly credible inquiries to tackle corruption within the state is new.

“We have never seen this before,” said political analyst Ralph Mathekga. “I also think the enthusiasm with which the MPs are tackling this issue is very strange, especially coming from ANC MPs.”

The main driver of these inquiries is factional battles within the ANC.

“Some members have decided not to abandon the ANC. Instead, they are going to fight these battles within the ANC,” said Mathekga, referring to the likes of former finance minister Pravin Gordhan.

Van Damme said that when the way was cleared for a competent investigation into the SABC to take place, it garnered the co-operation of all political party representatives.

“The public saw, for a change, the ANC was doing the right thing for the first time. Let’s hope it’s not the only time,” she said.

The inquiry served as the first and pivotal step towards bringing the full extent of the problems at the SABC out into the open, she said, adding that the parliamentary committee had done a good job in appointing the interim board.

“We are happy with their progress thus far … Obviously, the trick will be to ensure this carries over into the permanent board,” Van Damme said.

Parliament will put together recommendations for a permanent board in early August, she said. It recommends board appointees, in accordance with the Broadcasting Act, and the president endorses the appointments, as was the case for the interim board.

Van Damme added that it was not common for the president to oppose the recommendations.

The ANC representatives on the public enterprises committee include Gordhan, who at the start of the inquiry on Tuesday lamented that the “don’t care” attitude at parastatals had reached “proportions where it allows people involved in these activities to act with extreme virtual impunity. In other words: ‘You can’t catch me’,” he said.

Mzingisi Dlamini, an Economic Freedom Fighters MP on the committee, said he believed there was consensus among ANC MPs about how the inquiry should be conducted and he believed it would be credible.

“With the EFF around, we are pushing them [ANC MPs] to be clean, and providing superior logic even if they want to be obstructive … But we get a suspicion some of them are just tired of defending things they cannot,” he said. “Some, you can see they have been instructed to disagree, so they [the ANC MPs] are not finding each other, which is good for the rest of us … the numbers are in favour of a proper inquiry.”

The results of the parliamentary inquiry will determine what further action needs to be taken. If it is found that the Eskom board must be dissolved, the committee can order this to be done.

Dlamini said one had to remember that, despite the various comings and goings of executives at Eskom, some board members who the tainted Ngubane presided over remained.

The Eskom parliamentary inquiry could get underway as soon as next month, although Rantho said the dates had not been determined.


SIU can’t act without the president’s okay

Complaints of maladministration at state-owned entities appear to be piling up at the feet of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU).

Many matters relating to state capture have been referred to the SIU for investigation, including some contracts at the SABC and some Eskom coal contracts.

In these cases, if the SIU decides there is a need for an investigation, a motivation for a proclamation is submitted to the department of justice and state law advisers. If they are satisfied with this, it is submitted to the president for signing. Thereafter, it is gazetted.

The publication of a proclamation allows an SIU investigation to begin and the unit is then able to exercise its statutory powers.

The SIU would not comment on what motivations for proclamations are awaiting the president’s signature — and there are believed to be many — but no matters relating to state capture were listed as being under active investigation on the unit’s website.

The presidency did not respond to requests for this information.

In terms of the Special Investigating Units and Special Tribunals Act, the SIU is mandated to investigate matters relating to a state institution or where public money or public property is involved, or where unlawful or improper conduct by any person has caused or may cause serious harm to the interests of the public.

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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