Ed Herbst: The SABC – bankrupt but rich in Hlaudi ‘enforcers’

Reports that the SABC is running out of money and is struggling to even pay salaries hasn’t come as a surprise to many, considering the total incompetent management style that former COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng enforced on the broadcaster. Several court bids later, and Motsoeneng has, for the time being, been barred from stepping onto the SABC HQ premises at Auckland Park, Johannesburg. However, as Ed Herbst points out below, Motsoeneng still continues to draw a salary while sitting around at home. But more than this, Hlaudi has a list of enforcers that ensure his presence at the broadcaster is still very much felt. As a result, the risk is that Hlaudi continues to drive home President Zuma’s agenda at the broadcaster, just like Snuki ‘Zero Sum’ Zikalala’s Stalinist approach beefed up Thabo Mbeki’s image on SABC broadcasts. It seems the tentacles of cronyism stretch far and wide – can this network ever be rooted out? – Gareth van Zyl

That’s all folks, or is it? Zapiro on Hlaudi Motsoeneng. More magic available at www.zapiro.com.

By Ed Herbst* 

“These are the people who form part of the network Mr Hlaudi Motsoeneng created around him to execute his decisions and agenda – specifically as it pertains to the newsroom.  

  • Mr Anton Heunis – ‘Commercial Adviser’
  • Mr Simon Tebele – GCEO: News and Current Affairs
  • Ms Sebulelo Dithlakanyane (Head of Radio News and Current Affairs)
  • Ms Sophie Mokoena (acting political and foreign editor)
  • Mr Nyana Molete (Line Manager: TV News)
  • Ms Nothando Maseko (Head of TV News

“These are the main enforcers of Mr Motsoeneng’s wishes in news management. They continue with their ways even in his absence and although I personally have no supporting evidence, Mr Motsoeneng is believed broadly to still be calling the shots on many levels at the SABC despite his removal.”

Suna Venter’s submission to Parliament on 14/1/2017

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

ON 24 November 2009, Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda announced that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan had approved the SABC’s application for a R1.5bn bailout because it was chaotically bankrupt. All this on the watch of Snuki ‘Zero Sum’ Zikalala, the man who, according to Max du Preez, said it was symbolically important to drive whites out of the SABC, the man cited for human rights abuses at the TRC and the man roundly condemned in a North Gauteng High Court judgment on 24 January 2011 in which he was described as a dishonest propagandist who had tried to mislead the nation about the situation in Zimbabwe and a man who behaved abusively towards his staff – a judgment which led NUMSA to equate him with Joseph Goebbels.

Fast forward to 2 April this year and City Press reveals that, on the watch of Faith Muthambi, Hlaudi Motsoeneng and James Aguma the SABC is again effectively bankrupt and unable to pay its creditors. Furthermore, staff are experiencing not just abusive but life-threatening behaviour, the likes of which was never experienced by SABC news personnel prior to 1994.

The current financial crisis must surely have come as a surprise to Jimi ‘The Door or the Window’ Matthews, who alleges that Motsoeneng is not only a man of rare sartorial splendour but a man who possesses a ‘rare skill’, the man who ‘saved the ship’.

It will, however, have come as no surprise to Adriaan Basson who predicted this outcome eight months ago.

May we deduce from this that acting SABC CEO James Aguma – with the apparent approval and support of Faith Muthambi – has been misleading parliament and the country for some time now? I must acknowledge that I wouldn’t venture within a country mile of any used car emporium that employed him, but here’s a timeline. It highlights the contradiction between what Aguma and Motsoeneng have been telling parliament and the country for the past three years about the comforting liquidity of the SABC and what we now know – that it’s financial situation is dire and has been for a long time.

Former SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng

In June 2009 freelance television producers who had delivered programme content which had been broadcast but for which they had not been paid marched on the Auckland Park headquarters of the SABC because they were owed a combined total of R58m. By then smaller companies had gone to the wall and dozens of people had been retrenched because of the criminal snouting and gross incompetence of the ANC’s patronage parasites at the SABC.

Anything the Mbeki faction could stuff up, the Zuma faction can stuff up more

24 October 2014 – Corruption Watch says when the SABC appeared before the Communications Portfolio Committee this week, it wasn’t just the public broadcaster’s whopping R3.3-billion in irregular expenditure, but also the reason for this financial fiasco that boggled their minds.

“James Aguma, the SABC’s CFO, admitted that not all of the R3.3bn was spent in the financial year ending in March, but that it had actually been spent over the two years prior as well. Some R1.36bn was incurred in 2013 and a further R1bn in 2012. These amounts were only disclosed in the last financial year.

“While MPs were outraged by the irregular expenditure,” reported the M&G Online on the matter, the explanation from the public broadcaster left them even more baffled.’

21 June 2015 – The Sunday Times reveals that the SABC’s financial situation is very troubling

As Motsoeneng rises, the SABC’s finances falter

“THE SABC’s financial fortunes have plummeted since its embattled chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, effectively took the helm at the broadcaster just over a year ago.

“Last month, the Sunday Times revealed the SABC faced massive losses this year despite telling parliament it was financially stable.

“Now, financial statements finalised on May 27 and submitted to the auditor general four days later reveal the broadcaster’s parlous financial state is even worse than previously thought.

“The unaudited statements seen by the Sunday Times reveal that on Motsoeneng’s watch the SABC has a projected loss of almost R400m and a drop in cash and equivalents of R405m.

“They also show the SABC spent almost R420m on freelancers, up from R334m last year, and R3.2bn on permanent staff, up from R2.3bn last year.

“The SABC’s chief financial officer, James Aguma, who has controlled finances since March last year, said errors listed in the statements reflected his determination to correct past accounting mistakes. ‘The current regime is making sure it detects what was not done properly before,’ he said. He insisted the SABC was ‘marching towards an unqualified audit’.”

23 August 2016 – Testifying in parliament, Aguma denies that there is chaos at the SABC and says that it is not in a loss-making situation. This, as we now know, was a blatant and brazen lie and lying to parliament could well amount to fraud.

28 February 2017 – Briefing Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communication on the SABC’s 2015/16 annual report, Aguma describes R1.5 billion in irregular expenditure as an ‘historic issue’.

1 March 2017 – Presenting the SABC’s 2016/17 annual report to Parliament’s portfolio committee on communications, Aguma paints a rosy picture of the state broadcaster’s financial position, saying that if there are any problems they are not of his making nor of Motsoeneng’s. He ducks, dives and refuses to account for the R5.1 billion irregular expenditure which has been recorded.

Democratic Alliance MP Natasha Mazzone says:

“The buck must stop somewhere…and I think it’s time to ask where the buck stops.

“R5.1bn is an extremely large and extremely concerning amount of money and imagine what could have been done with that money…who is responsible for that? Who is willing to stand up and say it’s my fault, I take full and unequivocal responsibility for this money being wasted?”

17 March 2017 – Responding to the news that the totally dysfunctional SABC was effectively bankrupt, the SACP issued a press statement.

“Under current acting CEO James Aguma it continues to pour its dwindling reserves into paying for a range of what may well be illegal contracts of no benefit to either the SABC or to the people of our country. It currently pays as much for TV licence fee collection as it receives (if not less than that) in licence fee income! If it simply stopped collecting licence fees, it would be no worse off. This is what Aguma has driven it into.

“The SABC’s audiences – once loyal and comprising a large majority of South Africans – have deserted the public broadcaster in their millions. They have not deserted the SABC because better private sector competitors have emerged, but because under Motsoeneng and his allies, the SABC’s content has become steadily worse. Only those with no choice at all continue to listen to and watch its stations and channels. And those who have left have taken their licence fees with them.”

19 March 2017 – City Press reveals that the SABC is so cash-strapped that it has called a halt to the production of TV shows and that it is facing a slew of CCMA cases because of its failure to honour fixed-term personnel contracts.

“Meanwhile, there is growing discontent over acting group chief executive officer (CEO) James Aguma, whose term Communications Minister Faith Muthambi extended for three months in January. According to the SABC’s most recent annual report, Aguma received a 67.25% increase in salary last year, which pushed his package from R1.3m to nearly R2.2m per year. Aguma also collected a 13th cheque of R181 000 last December.”

Democratic Alliance’s Phumzile van Damme

20 March 2017 – Responding to the City Press article, the Democratic Alliance calls for an urgent meeting of Parliament’s communications committee for a full briefing by Treasury on the status of the SABC’s finances. DA spokesperson Phumzile van Damme said there was increasing scepticism about the truth of James Aguma’s testimony before parliament about the state broadcaster’s liquidity.

“It is apparent now that he was not fully honest. The financial crisis at the SABC is concerning and should be treated as a matter of urgency, especially when people’s jobs are at risk,” she said.

22 March 2017 – In an interview with The Star, Aguma takes no personal responsibility for the SABC’ impending bankruptcy even though he has been acting chief financial officer since March 2014. He blames a downturn in the global economy and the political situation in South Africa – he is in charge of the SABC’s finances but he is never responsible, never accountable and the buck never stops with him. And, all the while, the SABC bleeds financially.

31 March 2017 – Business Day reveals that the SABC’s television viewership figures have plunged to 45% of market share, the lowest ever. Audience share determines advertising share which accounts for 85% of the state broadcaster’s income.

This information is contained in an internal report which also shows that Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s 90% local content policy – constantly praised by Aguma, the former SABC board chairman Mbulaheni Maguvhe and his predecessor, Ben Ngubane – has played  a role in the coming bankruptcy. It has significantly reduced the income from advertising on both television and radio channels.

The portents of this wholesale desertion by broadcast viewers and listeners became obvious three years ago from the SABC’s own commissioned research – Project Kindle – which exposed its pro-ANC bias and the degree to which this was alienating South Africans across the board. Not unexpectedly this news was suppressed and the Project Kindle report has never been made public.

Motsoeneng remains at home on full salary but that’s how the ANC rolls – the bibulous Judge Nikola Motata hasn’t done a day’s work for a decade but has snouted more than R14m in that time and former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli is alleged to have snouted about R10m for sitting at home for the past six years.

And then there is Bernadette Mercy Nkosi, 55, of Umlalazi Combined Primary School in Eshowe, who has been on sick leave since 2007 costing the education department more than R3m for her salary and the salaries of the subsequently-employed substitute teachers.

Way to go, Hlaudi – snouting at the trough for years on end without doing a stitch of work and all part of the ANC’s ‘Good story to tell’ and your 100% good news story approach!

The ‘Enforcers’

But if the state broadcaster is once again short of money it has certainly not been short of Enforcers ever since the ANC deployed former President Thabo Mbeki’s imbongis at the SABC – people like Zikalala and board members Christine Qunta and Thami Mazwai – with catastrophic consequences.

Zikalala’s brief when Mbeki controlled Luthuli House and the Union Buildings was, as far as possible, to deny Jacob Zuma airtime and this was aptly summed up by Alexander Parker in his book, 50 People who stuffed up South Africa.

“As the Zuma/Mbeki showdown gathered momentum in 2007, it was, for SABC-watchers, almost amusing to witness the public broadcaster flail about as it tried to work out how to report on what was going on. The corporation was pro-Mbeki and yet the ANC was rapidly turning pro-Zuma. In the run-up to the event Mbeki was interviewed on fifteen SABC stations; Zuma on exactly none. You could almost see the hand-wringing as the propaganda machine had to deal with increasingly serious fallout for its master, and there was little surprise when it all came crashing down.”

The openly-biased Zikalala and the overnight millionaire, Sophie Mokoena were clearly distraught when the beginning of the end of Mbeki’s presidential career was announced at Polokwane.

Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa

When Hlaudi Motsoeneng was subsequently deployed as Jacob Zuma’s conduit at the state broadcaster, he followed Zikalala’s example, turning the broadcasting tables on Mbeki and giving him a taste of his own medicine. The most obvious example was the way in which Mbeki’s statements at Fort Hare University on 19 October 2012 – the first time Mbeki had spoken publicly since the Polokwane Putsch – were expunged from the few seconds that were devoted to this story at the end of the news segment in the SABC TV news bulletin. The millions of South Africans who depend on the SABC news content did not hear a single word of his speech which was critical of the Zuma administration – the TV news insert was covered in its entirety by presenter voice-over.

There is no difference in principle between the news policies pursued by Zikalala and those of Motsoeneng – ask Max du Preez, he’ll tell you

When Zikalala finally left the SABC there was a euphoric, cathartic sense of relief and one can understand why when one reads Alexander Parker’s apt summation of him:

“Zikalala struck a blow for Stalinism by keeping ordinary people ignorant of the truth and he tried to establish a kind of ghastly Ministry of Truth in which he played the role of Big Brother. But for the colour of his skin he would have done well under Vorster or Botha.”

Unsurprisingly, Zikalala blamed his timely and welcomed demise at the SABC on his white fellow-South Africans.

The SABC’s Enforcers of the Mbeki era have simply been replaced by the Enforcers of the Zuma era and according to the written submission to parliament by one of the SABC8, Suna Venter, (below) the latter are still there, no whit abashed and very definitely not operating beneath the radar.

Motsoeneng’s heavies are no doubt encouraged by the news that he has brought in the security police to spy on employees and they will be even more encouraged by the fact that this was done illegally.

  • Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.

Supporting statement – SABC 8 testimony before parliament’s ad hoc committee into the SABC Board

Suna Venter

14 January 2017

INTRODUCTION

During the appearance of the SABC 8’s four members designated to testify before the ad hoc committee on 12 December 2017 (Ms Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki, Ms Krivani Pillay, Mr Lukhanyo Calata and Mr Vuyo Mvoko), they were asked for certain additional details, comments and supporting documents. I trust that my colleagues have each sent what was requested of them. In the absence of testifying, I was asked to provide the committee with any information or supporting documents in my possession. Please excuse us if there is any overlap in our supporting statements. This particular document contains my own contributions.

The SABC 8 were asked for a list of enforcers.

These are the people who form part of the network Mr Hlaudi Motsoeneng created around him to execute his decisions and agenda – specifically as it pertains to the newsroom.

1.1 Mr Anton Heunis

Mr Heunis retired early from the position of Executive for Commercial Enterprises in April 2015 – after 35 years at the SABC. At the time he stated he was retiring for reasons of ill health. Heunis was at the time also acting GCEO (starting in September 2014), although he was briefly replaced in this capacity by Mr Hlaudi Motsoeneng for a period in November, when he was ill. Upon his retirement in 2015 it was announced that he would stay on at the SABC in the role of Commercial Advisor.

In practice, Mr Heunis and Mr Motsoeneng became inseparable – to the extent that Motsoeneng once joked to staff that ‘Anton and I are not gay’. In the newsroom, when Mr Motsoeneng came to a radio studio for an interview – Mr Heunis would always be at his side and often afterwards berate production staff or managers for aspects of the interview he felt could have been handled differently. Even in instances where other executives were being interviewed by RSG, Mr Heunis would accompany them.

I had one such experience with Mr Heunis. It was two days after the release of the SABC’s 2015/2016 Annual Report on 29 September last year (2016). The Acting Chief Financial Officer Ms Audrey Raphela agreed to appear on our midday current affairs programme, Spektrum, two days later. Upon arrival she was accompanied by Mr Heunis, who demanded a list of the questions we would be asking her. It is not common or good journalistic practice to provide interviewees with questions beforehand – yet I (as senior producer in charge of the hour long programme), obliged. When the time came for her interview I left the control room to fetch Ms Raphela from where she was sitting at the conference table with Mr Heunis. When I asked her to follow me to the studio, Mr Heunis tagged along, brandishing a pen and notebook. It is also not common practice to allow anyone into studio who will not form part of an interview. Mr Heunis however did not ask for permission and positioned himself at an angle to the presenter where she could clearly see him making notes and shaking his head at some of her (very standard) questions. At one point Ms Raphela herself was openly hostile to the presenter, Suzanne Paxton, when asked how we were going to deal with the disproportionate growth of salary expenses each year. (This was after a R500 000 salary hike in 2015/2016 for Mr Motsoeneng became public along with the annual report.) Ms Raphela looked at Ms Paxton and said to her: ‘Well, we can always start by cutting YOUR salary’, at which Mr Heunis sniggered from where he was sitting. The presenter was clearly unnerved by the situation and refused to ask some tough, off-the-cuff questions I typed on the slave screen (screen used to communicate between producer and presenter.)

After the conclusion of the interview Mr Heunis cornered me on his way out of the studio and started berating me for the poor way in which the interview was conducted. He accused me of over-emphasising the corporation’s net loss of R411 million and under-emphasising good news like the fact that more and more departments were getting clean audits. He accused us of quoting inaccurate figures (untrue – the presenter had the full report in front of her for reference), asked me what our salary bill had to do with the rest of the world and objected to the fact that in introducing the story, we referred to the fact that the report’s release had been delayed. He denied that it was so – despite the fact that the original release date WAS in fact moved forward by a week at the last minute, pending Mr Motsoeneng’s return after a court challenge. Mr Heunis’s basic message was: this is bad journalism, deliberately designed to make the corporation look bad. This from a man who is on record as stating he knows nothing about journalism in a meeting earlier that year, where SABC 8 member and RSG Current Affairs Executive Producer Foeta Krige was present. Mr Heunis left both my presenter and I with the impression that the incident would have repercussions. To my knowledge, or at least insofar as affecting me, it never did.

1.2 Mr Simon Tebele – GCEO: News and Current Affairs

Mr Tebele states in a sworn affidavit that he was the one who decided to suspend Foeta Krige, Thandeka Gqubule and myself for objecting to the removal of a story on protests at the SABC in a national radio diary meeting. This is attached as Annexure A (page 3, point 7). That decision was later struck down by a court. On the day, however, that Mr Tebele’s assertion that he acted alone (which is currently the subject of review by a judge) was filed with the court, his position as Head of News was converted from ‘Acting’ to ‘Permanent’. It should be investigated if due process was followed in this regard. On that same day, I ran into Mr Tebele at the IEC Election Results Centre in Tshwane. Ms Xolisa Sigabi (national head of radio bulletins) congratulated him in my presence for ‘taking the axe.’ He responded by looking at me, pointing upwards and saying: ‘Look, Suna, I think we all know what happened.’ I took this as meaning he had orders from Mr Motsoeneng – especially in light of the fact that in a meeting earlier that year Mr Motsoeneng said to Mr Tebele: ‘If people do not adhere, get rid of them.’ (Please refer to page 16, clause 29.3 of ANNEXURE B – the SABC 8’s founding affidavit in our case for direct access pending before the Constitutional Court)

His name also features in the attached sworn affidavit of Mwaba Phiri (Executive Producer: Question Time) several times. This is attached as ANNEXURE C.

Mr Tebele has since adopted a more nuanced approach in the newsroom but admitted to me as recently as Friday, 6 January 2017, during a meeting in his office, that he was under pressure from above. It is also true that he rarely makes any important or pronouncement in national diary meetings now, before spending quite some time texting and awaiting an answer – from whom we do not know.

1.3 Ms Sebulelo Dithlakanyane (Head of Radio News and Current Affairs)

Ms Krivani Pillay testified extensively with regards to her late-night texts and phone calls, among other things, to give editorial instructions that forbid analysis of certain stories, or to order that a praise song written for Mr Motsoeneng be played in SAfm’s (and other) current affairs shows.

1.4 Ms Sophie Mokoena (acting political and foreign editor)

Ms Mokoena is implicated in various instances of editorial interference, especially at television. My colleague Thandeka Gqubule testified extensively about her constant interruption of news shows to have certain political items removed from air. She is also named several times in Mwaba Phiri’s affidavit. (ANNEXURE C) Her history with Mr Motsoeneng is well-known.

1.5 Mr Nyana Molete (Line Manager: TV News) and Ms Nothando Maseko (Head of TV News)

Both are implicated in serious editorial interference in Mwaba Phiri’s affidavit. (Annexure C)

NOTE: THESE ARE THE MAIN ENFORCERS OF MR MOTSOENENG’S WISHES IN NEWS MANAGEMENT. THEY CONTINUE WITH THEIR WAYS EVEN IN HIS ABSENCE AND ALTHOUGH I PERSONALLY HAVE NO SUPPORTING EVIDENCE, MR MOTSOENENG IS BELIEVED BROADLY TO STILL BE CALLING THE SHOTS ON MANY LEVELS AT THE SABC DESPITE HIS REMOVAL.

2. The SABC 8 were asked for a list of incidents supporting our claim that we do not function as an independent newsroom

A myriad of examples are contained in our Founding Affidavit in the Constitutional Court Case of SABC 8 vs Others. Please refer to Annexures B, D, E, F. G, H.

3. We were asked to make recommendations on remedial action

3.1 We would ask that the unlawfully adopted Editorial Policy of 2016 be set aside and that we fall back on its predecessor until a proper process of revision can take place.

3.2 We would ask that this committee make very specific and binding recommendations to any board that takes over after the inquiry. We would urge you to prioritize the newsroom in this regard, and that the SABC 8 be allowed to make representations to any new board on the situation and possible solutions in the newsroom.

3.3 We would ask that the appointments and salaries of all ‘enforcers’ and others implicated in our evidence be investigated to see if due process was followed, and that those appointments be struck down if necessary. We believe Mr Motsoeneng to be a very influential man, and each of those enforcers serve some purpose in fulfilling his personal agenda.

3.4 We would beg an apology from minister Faith Muthambi as well as those members of management who, in parliament, before the portfolio committee implied or straight out said that we were liars, traitors, unethical and racists. (See parliament’s own transcript from PPC on communications in the week of 21 August.) We would also beg an acknowledgement from that committee that they failed, for years, to execute their oversight role over the SABC.

3.5 Should any further death threats or acts of violence be perpetrated against any member of the SABC 8 with possible links to the situation at the corporation, we would ask for special police protection.

4. We were asked for a list of incidents of intimidation against the SABC 8

This is attached as Annexure J.

The information above must be viewed as my personal input to this inquiry as a member of the SABC 8.

Kind regards

Suna Venter

SABC Radio: Current Affairs

Senior Producer

RSG