Parliament’s final report on its SABC inquiry, adopted in May 2017, found that Faith Muthambi as communications minister had politically interfered in the public broadcaster and “displayed incompetence”.
It recommended: “The president should seriously reconsider the desirability of this particular minister retaining the communications portfolio.”
That matter came up in the House three months later in a question from AgangSA MP Andries Tlouamma to then president Jacob Zuma. His response?
“I’m not firing Minister Muthambi. I have not taken that decision.”
And EFF MP Godrich Gardee’s rapid interjection – “You have a minister who leaked Cabinet memos here in terms of the #GuptaLeaks” – remained unanswered amid rising tempers in that presidential Q&A slot on 31 August 2017, according to the Hansard transcript.
The #GuptaLeaks show how, shortly after her appointment as communications minister following the May 2014 elections, Muthambi picked up the communications on Cabinet matters to the Gupta family. Central was the rejig of government, including new departments, and the related transfer of functions. The focus was within communications and telecommunications, with several emails dealing with Sentech, the State-owned Entity (SoE) that carries broadcast signals for the SABC and commercial broadcasters like the then still Gupta-owned ANN7, and the Broadband Infraco SoE.
The #GuptaLeaks show that Muthambi never directly emailed Tony Gupta, even if the email is addressed “Hi Tony”, but rather directed the communications to Ashu Chawla, the CEO of the Gupta-owned Sahara company.
Chawla then forwarded the ministerial emails, usually within a couple of minutes. And in this way Tony Gupta also was kept informed on digital migration – and what appears to have been an intra-Cabinet turf contestation. A letter Muthambi wrote to her colleague, Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister Siyabonga Cwele, on 26 July 2014 arguing that digital migration should stay with communications is attached to an email sent three days later to the Guptas:
“Hi Toni Despite my request, the cde is determined to table the matter in cabinet tomorrow .. He called me that he was coming to Cape Town this morning … I hope he still on his way…”
South Africa’s digital migration – simply put, the move from analogue to digital broadcasting – is now expected in June 2019, four years after the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) June 2015 deadline that South Africa had undertaken to meet as far back as 2006. This delay has a domino effect in ICT and the now much talked about Fourth Industrial Revolution, as digital migration is needed to free up the broadband spectrum. And that’s where the telecommunications ministry comes in, as broadband falls under its auspices.
Unlike the extractive State Capture of hundreds of millions of rand channelled to Gupta-aligned companies and business associates, particularly at SoEs such as Eskom – itself subject to a parliamentary inquiry, whose report is expected in August – it appears this type of State Capture is being treated somehow as of lesser significance. Yet it is that sharing of privileged information, alongside manipulating who’s who in what post, which sets the tone and direction of State Capture.
That’s illustrated by what happened at the public broadcaster, the SABC, from when Muthambi was plucked by Zuma from the parliamentary communications committee to head that portfolio at executive level in a choice for the post-May 2014 election Cabinet that raised eyebrows at the time.
Three months later, in July 2014, Hlaudi Motsoeneng was appointed SABC chief operations officer, being cleared, in what many regarded as sham proceedings, of the serious findings of abuse of power, unilateral salary hikes and misrepresenting his qualifications outlined in the February 2014 public protector’s “When governance and ethics fail” report.
Muthambi and Motsoeneng were a formidable duo at the helm of the unravelling at the public broadcaster.
Muthambi sought to control the SABC board, which at one stage was widely criticised for not meeting the legally required quorum. Controversy erupted in early 2015 when three outspoken board members understood to have been opposed to Motsoeneng’s appointment – Hope Zinde, Rachel Kalidass and Ronny Lubisi – were suspended in two special board meetings. Their removals were endorsed by Muthambi outside the SABC’s governing legislation, the Broadcasting Act, by invoking the Companies Act.
Muthambi had amended the SABC memorandum of incorporation (MOI) in late 2014 to extend her powers – although the parliamentary SABC inquiry found this unlawful, and ruled the 2013 MOI remained applicable. In 2015 Muthambi followed this up with a Broadcasting Act Amendment Bill that strips Parliament of its say in the SABC and appointment of board members, although that Bill has not moved in the legislative pipeline.
All the while, Motsoeneng talked 70% sunshine news, unilaterally upped local content music quotas and, ahead of the 2016 local government elections, banned showing visuals of community protests like those in Vumani, Limpopo.
That broke the camel’s back. Three civil society organisations approached the regulator, Icasa, to reverse this ban, and senior journalists – dubbed the SABC 8 – spoke out also about an increasingly stifling working environment, for which they were suspended, sacked and then reinstated amid a public outcry. Those within the ANC, who had watched with concern the shenanigans at the SABC, stepped up to push for a clean-up. In the prevailing factional battles, this move succeeded and the National Assembly in November 2016 established its parliamentary SABC inquiry, given “prima facie evidence that the SABC’s primary mandate as a national public broadcaster has been compromised by the lapse of governance and management…”
Over the past year, since the report has been adopted, there’s been action: there is a functioning board, finances have come under control and Motsoeneng was dismissed in June 2017 for bringing the SABC into disrepute. SABC CEO James Aguma also resigned, just ahead of disciplinary proceedings.
Also gone by then from communications, but not government, was Muthambi, who was moved to public service and administration in that controversial March 2017 Cabinet reshuffle that saw the departure of Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas from the finance ministry.
In that new ministry, Muthambi similarly courted controversy. A Public Service Commission probe started after the DA complained about Muthambi’s hiring of more officials to her private office than permitted in the ministerial handbook. Parliament’s public service and administration committee was also looking into the minister’s spending of approximately R300,000 to host guests for her budget vote in 2017, and then ditching a date with MPs to explain herself.
During her question time in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on 12 September 2017, Muthambi denied such claims.
“I want to dismiss all these allegations as raised with contempt based on the fact that I’ve never abrogated my responsibility of not coming to Parliament… On the other issues that are being raised, I think that they lack substance as well… Therefore, I reserve my right to comment on the other matters,” she said, according to Hansard.
Six months later, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced his new Cabinet, there remained some ministers closely associated with Zuma. But not Muthambi. Gone from Cabinet, she took up her seat on the ANC benches in the National Assembly.
Aside from Outa (Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse) in July 2017 laying treason charges against Muthambi for the Cabinet leaks, there appears to have been little, if any, other action for any of the manipulations associated with Muthambi’s stints in Cabinet.
The Outa charges, and its report, were referred to Parliament’s communication committee. In discussions on 27 March 2018 MPs across the political divide agreed Muthambi should be charged and “sent to prison”, according to Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG). But the committee decision was to write to the Speaker’s Office that an inquiry was not the correct approach, but that this matter should be referred to the ethics committees.
A snarl-up appears to have developed over who should take what action and how: should it be the Speaker that takes action, or must the committee compile a report and resolution for the House?
And this also seems to have arisen in relation to the parliamentary SABC inquiry recommendations on contradictory and misleading testimony. The final inquiry report adopted by the National Assembly in May 2017 indicated that a separate process and report into who had presented contradictory/misleading evidence was needed. That subsequent report in July 2017 confirmed that Muthambi, and others, had provided misleading information, which should be investigated under the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act. That could, for example, lead to contempt verdicts.
It is unclear what, if anything, has happened regarding SAPS investigations of the criminal charges.
From parliamentary inquiry findings to #GuptaLeaks emails showing breaches of Cabinet confidentiality, there is much to answer for. But for now Muthambi goes on to pop up in places across the country. DM
Earl Wild was the first person to play the piano live on TV. He was also the first to do so on the internet 58 years later.
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