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The fall of Zuma’s man at the SABC

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The fall of Zuma’s man at the SABC

Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s rise to the top of South Africa’s public broadcaster was a function of the Big Man’s patronage. So what does his fall say about Zuma’s grip on power? By John Dludlu.

 By the time you read this, the career of Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the former chief operations officer (COO) of the SABC, South Africa’s public broadcaster, will have begun unravelling. Three factors are behind his downfall: first, a high court ruled in December that he can’t hold any position at the broadcaster until he’s faced a proper disciplinary hearing; second, a parliamentary inquiry, which has just completed its work into the fitness of the SABC board to hold office, has heard testimonies about how Motsoeneng abused his power; and third, and most importantly, he’s lost protection from his sponsor Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s embattled president.

Although it’s unclear how the two met, the story of Motsoeneng is inextricably linked to that of Zuma’s presidency. One account has it that the pair formed a friendship when they were both in the wilderness: Zuma had been fired as deputy president of South Africa following the conviction of his financial adviser for corruption, and Motsoeneng, a mid-level SABC radio producer in the Free State, had lost his job.

They share many qualities: both teetotallers come from rural South Africa (Zuma comes from KwaZulu Natal, and Motsoeneng hails from Qwaqwa), and have little formal education, although now both have a string of other qualifications to their names. Zuma has a few honorary doctorates, and, the SABC’s latest annual report lists the following under Motsoeneng although he has no high school certificate: Leadership Development Programme, Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS): NQF Level 7 – Bachelor’s Degree; National Certificate in Generic Management, (Prodigy): NQF Level 5 – Higher Certificate; The Thompson Foundation Certificate in Radio Journalism; Analysis of Contemporary Social Issues (University of Witwatersrand).

And both are renowned for spectacular comebacks, and like mocking their detractors. They also have stark differences: Zuma publicly supports education and has a foundation that provides financial aid to the poor, whilst Motsoeneng ridicules it; unlike Zuma, who uses his minimal education as a strength against his enemies, Motsoeneng detests being considered ignorant and goes all out to prove his detractors wrong.

Motsoeneng, who’s separated from his wife with whom he has children, returned to the public broadcaster as Zuma was taking over South Africa’s presidency. Once he returned, his rise to the top became unstoppable. In just a few years, Motsoeneng would rise to become COO – a number three position at the broadcaster, on paper at least. In reality, though, he ran the show, overshadowing both the chief executive and finance director.

In the last seven years, the SABC has lost four full-time CEOs and more than 20 executives and two boards of directors, as Motsoeneng’s career progressed. The common thread amongst those who left is that they all, at one point or another, crossed paths with Motsoeneng. Falling out with him isn’t difficult at all; it’s as easy as just questioning his instructions. Once you refuse to carry out his instruction, you’re branded “not one of us”, and you’re suspended, and ultimately forced out. Millions of taxpayer’s money have been spent on payouts to unwanted executives in this way.

His power was not limited to purging executives and junior employees; it also extended to board members, his bosses, in theory. Soon after the 2014 elections, a new communications minister was appointed, and she told an adviser that her first order of business would be to make permanent Motsoeneng’s appointment to the position of COO. The reason: ubaba (Zuma) uyamthanda (likes him)…we’ve to support him!

Armed with his powerful title and protection from Zuma, he then began his reign. He used his power by turning Africa’s largest news-gathering operation into a state broadcaster serving the interests of Zuma. He openly gloats about his relationship with Zuma.

He works through a network of proxies and associates, mostly from his home province, and rarely signs anything.

It is significant to note that Motsoeneng’s strategy wasn’t meant to shield the ruling ANC from embarrassment. Rather, it was to protect his protector and sponsor, Zuma, and the ANC benefited by virtue of it being led by Zuma. Most senior ANC leaders, who resent his influence, are embarrassed by his antics. Unlike ANC veterans, the man, who is in his forties, has no struggle credentials to speak of. The anti-Zuma faction in the ANC has complained about being censored by the public broadcaster.

As the parliamentary ANC, led by a maverick chief whip Jackson Mthembu, finally mustered the courage to probe the fitness of the SABC board to hold office, Motsoeneng did all he could to frustrate its proceedings. Mthembu, an outspoken leader who’s asked the entire ANC leadership (including himself) to quit after the dismal performance at last August’s municipal polls, would have none of Motsoeneng’s filibustering tactics. He pressed on with the inquiry. On 7 December, Motsoeneng led a walkout of SABC executives from the ad-hoc committee’s proceedings. And later that day, he called a press conference with Mbulaheni Maguvhe, the SABC chairman, during which he poured scorn on the ANC-led, multi-party parliamentary inquiry.

The inquiry has heard stories of how independent-minded and ethical journalists were forced to practise sunshine journalism. The picture from the hearings is one of a powerful man who’s a law unto himself. In late January, the committee decided not to call him to testify even though his name dominated the month-long hearings. Instead, he will have an opportunity this month to comment on a draft report which will, most likely, implicate him.

Apart from awarding himself numerous salary increases and bonuses, he routinely rewarded his cronies with spot bonuses and increases whilst punishing others by denying them these perks. Similarly, to curry favour with the entertainment industry, he decreed that the SABC would, overnight, play 90% local music on radio and 80% on TV – well above the regulated local content quota. As with irregular pay rises, none of this was budgeted for. The changes haven’t gone down well with audiences in South Africa. The SABC, which is funded through poorly collected license fees, subsidy and advertising revenue, is losing advertising income as its audience ratings are declining; and the broadcaster has reported more than R400 million in losses.

Over time, it seems Motsoeneng’s desire for power became insatiable. Not only was his mission confined to protecting the president; he also used his power to pass on financial favours to his and Zuma’s friends.

His sense of invincibility has seen him ignore several adverse findings by auditors, law courts and the public protector over the years. Where he couldn’t ignore findings, he used SABC’s money to fight unwinnable court cases brought by the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance. The December ruling, which forbids him from holding any position at SABC, is a result of one of numerous challenges the DA has instituted against him. Increasingly, sensing abuse of public funds and court processes, the courts are asking serial litigants like Motsoeneng and Maguvhe to pay for their own lawsuits.

Under growing pressure from the ANC, on 9 December, Zuma’s office ordered that “all public entities and departments… respect the other arms of the state – the judiciary and parliament. They are required to cooperate with the two institutions…” This was after Motsoeneng and his hangers-on at the SABC had refused to hand over important documents to Mthembu’s ad hoc committee. Zuma, who survived an internal ANC no-confidence vote last November, is under pressure from his party comrades – the likes of Mthembu and Gwede Mantashe, the party’s secretarygeneral – and some in his government inner circle to distance himself from controversy-prone associates like Motsoeneng and the Gupta family.

The December high court ruling, plus the loss of Zuma’s support, has left Motsoeneng vulnerable, isolated and increasingly out of luck. After years of ignoring and sidestepping adverse findings, Motsoeneng, who rarely takes a vacation, has been forced to stay away from his posh 27th floor office at the Auckland headquarters of the SABC since the ruling. He joins other Zuma enforcers who have been forced out of jobs by courts. This list includes prosecutors Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi, and crime intelligence chief Richard Mdluli, who are all on suspension. After years of seeing the backs of his enemies, Motsoeneng, Zuma’s man at the SABC, is, at last, on his way down. 

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