South Africa


The SABC8: Hlaudi according to Hlaudi

In 2016, eight journalists stood up to the public broadcaster against the censorship imposed by COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng and the capture of the newsroom. Here, one of the SABC8, shares his version of events: how it came about that eight very different journalists were brought together in the name of media freedom. This forms the backdrop to death threats, intimidation, assault and the death of Suna Venter.

The year 2008 was marked by internal struggle and change for the ruling ANC. A battle was brewing between President Thabo Mbeki and his former deputy, Jacob Zuma. It had started in 2005, when Zuma was dismissed as the country’s second-in-command after being implicated in a corruption scandal. He remained on as the ANC’s deputy president, however. In August that year, the Directorate of Special Operations, known as the Scorpions, raided Zuma’s houses and lawyers’ offices. In December, he was charged with rape, following allegations by the daughter of an old friend. Two years later, in December 2007, in spite of the onslaught on Zuma’s lifestyle and character, he was elected president of the ANC at the party’s national conference in Polokwane, Limpopo. He immediately surrounded himself with benefactors, enablers and enforcers. He further got rid of enemies and skilful people alike, slowly securing the vital institutions that once threatened his freedom.

There are four types of people in the SABC newsroom. The followers follow the leader irrespective of political affiliation. Their only ambition is to do their work, stay out of trouble, get a salary at the end of the month and protect their pension.

The loyalists are those who will stay faithful to their political party or faction, irrespective of who is in charge. They genuinely believe in the cause of their political masters. In meetings they will listen, but rarely voice an opposing viewpoint. Instead, they will whisper in corridors and discuss issues with like-minded people behind closed doors.

Then there are the independent journalists, those with no affiliation, who will observe from the outside, with no allegiance to a person or party, but the truth. They are sceptics; they listen to the ruling party and the opposition with the same apprehension and suspicion. Their only allegiance is to the story and the people affected by the story. They are the true public broadcasters.

Lastly, there are the mercenaries, the turncoats. These are people with no specific allegiance, who are always available to protect and enable the person or political flavour of the day. In exchange, they get a better position, more power and a higher salary. They do it not out of loyalty, but for status, power, recognition and money. These are the ones who are destined to become the enforcers, the enablers and the protectors.

What happened in 2008 has happened before, and it will happen again. The public broadcaster, as the most important communication platform in the country, is too significant a tool to be left out of the political arena. In the battle between the Mbeki and Zuma factions in the ANC, the SABC had supported Mbeki. With Zuma’s victory at Polokwane, the time had, therefore, come for a regime change at the broadcaster to get rid of Mbeki sympathisers and to make space for Zuma enforcers.

There is a saying, ‘When the student is ready, the master will appear.’ At the SABC, the opposite is true. ‘When the master is ready, he creates the students’ – in the form of followers, enablers and enforcers.

In April 2008, Motsoeneng was reappointed at the SABC. His job as manager of special projects was important considering that election coverage, the State of the Nation Address and the ANC’s January 8th Statement all fell under special projects. Barely a month later, the regime change claimed its first victim at the SABC when Mbeki’s political commissar and head of news, Snuki Zikalala, was suspended by then group chief executive officer (GCEO) Dali Mpofu. Hours later, Mpofu himself was suspended. There were rumours that Zikalala’s suspension had followed his opposition to Motsoeneng’s reappointment.

It was a period of confusion for both the mercenaries and the loyalists in
the newsroom. It was a time to disguise and protect one’s own interests, to re-evaluate the current power structures and incumbents, and to decide on the next step, hoping that people would forget your past endeavours and utterances.

In September 2008, the High Court ruled that Zuma’s corruption charges were procedurally unlawful and that there was reason to believe the charges against him had been politically motivated. Zuma was thus cleared to run for president of the country. On 6 May 2009, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) withdrew all charges against him, and three days later he was inaugurated as president of the Republic of South Africa.

From November 2009 until July 2010, Motsoeneng was acting regional
editor for the Free State and Northern Cape news. But he was too far away from the coalface and so divided his time between Bloemfontein and Auckland Park, where it was rumoured he shared an office with Mpofu’s replacement, GCEO Solly Mokoetle. In August 2010 it was made official. Motsoeneng was now the executive manager: stakeholder relations in the office of the GCEO. It was a new position designed especially for him and signed off by Mokoetle and board chairperson Dr Ben Ngubane. According to the Public Protector’s report released in February 2014, the employment contract, dated 29 July 2010, preceded the offer, and his cost to company was set at R41 666 per month.

In April 2011, Motsoeneng’s title changed to group executive: stakeholder relations and regions of the SABC. The new title came with a bump in salary. Motsoeneng was now earning a comfortable R126 961 per month. But not for long. Seven months later, in November 2011, he became acting chief operating officer (COO) too. His salary escalated to R147 062 per month, an increase of 66 per cent in twelve months. As acting COO, from November 2011 until Febru­ary 2013, he received an additional R115 033 per month as an acting allowance.

In his latest position, Motsoeneng took a leaf from his president’s book. He started purging opposing voices, appointing lackey supporters, shifting enfor­cers to strategic positions and buying support through salary hikes. The Public Protector’s report included a list of at least fourteen people who lost their jobs directly or indirectly due to Motsoeneng. There was just one problem: the position of COO needed a permanent appointee, and Motsoeneng did not have the necessary qualifications. A plan had to be made.

In January 2012, the SABC appointed its sixth permanent CEO in eight years: Lulama Mokhobo. One of her first tasks was to appoint a permanent COO. The post was advertised internally on 28 January with a three-day deadline. Previously, in 2006, the COO post was advertised externally, too. Furthermore, it stated that applicants should have an ‘appropriate academic background, preferably postgraduate qualification’. In this latest, internal advertisement, the requirements had been changed: ‘Commercially astute executive, with broad-ranging operational track record of success in broadcasting,’ it read. No mention was made of qualifications, but the following was required: ‘well developed negotiation and relationship-building skills at the most senior level’; and the ‘ability to translate and promote the integration of new business objectives into financial, human capital and organisational development changes on an ongoing basis’.

Mokhobo later told the Public Protector that board chair Ben Ngubane
was ‘adamant that he did not want to see any qualifications reflected in the advertisement’.Ngubane denied this allegation, but it was clear to all that the advert was tailor-made for Motsoeneng. At that stage, the Public Protector was already investigating several complaints brought by senior managers against Motsoeneng’s appointment as acting COO as well as the salary increases he had received.

Despite its best efforts to pave the way for its crown prince, the SABC failed to appoint a permanent COO in 2012. In early 2013, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) was tasked with investigating corruption at the public broadcaster dating back to 2008. At the same time, the SABC board and Motsoeneng had a falling-out, and the board voted to have him removed as acting COO. In February, Motsoeneng was sent back to his job as a group executive.

Exactly a year later, the Public Protector’s final report established that
Motsoeneng had lied about his matric certificate, had abused his power by instigating his own salary increases, was responsible for unlawful appointments and salary increases, and had purged senior staff. Madonsela directed the SABC board to take disciplinary action against Motsoeneng to recover all wasteful expenditure incurred as a result of irregular salary increments. She also recommended that appropriate disciplinary action be taken against him for dishonesty, abuse of power, and improper conduct in appointments and purging of staff. She further recommended that a permanent COO be appointed within ninety days.

And that is exactly what communications minister Faith Muthambi did a few months later. On 9 July 2014, she approved the permanent appointment of new SABC COO Mr Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

A month later, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) filed an application in the Western Cape High Court to suspend and set aside the appointment based on the findings of the Public Protector. They won the case, but Motsoeneng, the SABC and the minister appealed the judgment. It was the beginning of a string of protracted court battles. In 2018, in reply to a question in Parliament, it was revealed that the SABC had spent R22 million defending Motsoeneng in fifteen different court cases since the 2013/14 financial year. The highest legal bill, R5.3 million, was a result of this fight with the DA over the Public Protector’s report.

When the Supreme Court of Appeal eventually upheld the judgment, on 8 October 2015, and ordered the SABC to adhere to the Public Protector’s recommendations, the broadcaster was forced to institute a disciplinary hearing against Motsoeneng. Although the hearing was set for 30 October, it only began in December, following another court intervention. The charge sheet, compiled by SABC board chairperson Professor Mbulaheni Obert Maguvhe, contained six charges: two of gross dishonesty, two of abuse of power and two of misconduct.

At that stage, it was clear who was the de facto boss of the SABC and the board. This was going to be a disciplinary hearing by Hlaudi against Hlaudi. So sure was he of the outcome of the hearing that he ordered the judgment be televised live.

The hearing was postponed, cancelled and reconvened several times in the first week of December. When it eventually got underway on 8 December,
the SABC, which had replaced its legal representative twice, introducing its third prosecutor on the morning of the hearing, immediately withdrew three of the charges. Furthermore, the media were ordered to leave after the broadcaster’s legal representative requested that they be excluded from hearing the testimony of the first witness for the employer. It was argued that witnesses would not be comfortable giving evidence about their current employer in the presence of the media for fear of prejudice. They would rather withdraw. In the end, the SABC called only four witnesses, three of whom testified in-camera for fear of retaliation.

Motsoeneng, represented by Advocate Zola Majavu, chose not to testify. His only witness was Alwyn Kloppers, the man who had recruited him more than twenty years previously and who had fought so hard for him to be appointed to the SABC. Advocate Willem Edeling, who chaired the hearing after Advocate William Mokhari was removed the week before, commented that he was particularly impressed with Kloppers’s testimony: ‘He was firm and, sometimes quite agitated, but the way in which he presented himself … He recruited Mr Motsoeneng. He saw talent in him … He thought it his duty to testify in this hearing to tell the public what had transpired at the time.’

Although Kloppers admitted that he had not interviewed Motsoeneng before recommending him as a full-time employee, Edeling accepted his as the ‘correct version’ and cleared Motsoeneng of all charges. Afterwards, an ecstatic Motsoeneng addressed the Friends of Hlaudi, a small group of loyal supporters who followed him from court case to court case.

What I know is majority of South Africa supports Hlaudi.

What I know is the colleagues at the SABC support Hlaudi unconditionally so.

What I know is the friends of Hlaudi support Hlaudi unconditionally so.

I’m an intellectual strategist. I’m an intellectual born person. No one can take that away from me except God, no one can stop me to go up and up, because I have brain in me.

I am a visionary. I am a born leader.

So it is important that those people that are saying they need people who understand SABC, as far as I’m aware, the current SABC there are only two people who understand SABC. It’s Jimi Matthews [then acting GCEO] and Hlaudi Motsoeneng. As far as I’m aware, among the three directors, I’m the only broadcaster. How do you appoint someone who knows nothing, zero, about broadcasting?

I have skills, I have expertise in me. I have everything.

Actually I fund SABC because I go and raise funding for the SABC.

And people are employed there because of me.

I am able to create jobs for unemployed young people! And people from tertiary. There’s no doubt about that issue. And all people at the SABC I know they support Hlaudi.

It was 12 December 2015. Despite all the setbacks, Motsoeneng had survived, vindicated and ready for the final phase of capturing the broadcaster. He had told his supporters that nobody could stop him going ‘up and up’.

He was wrong. DM

Foeta Krige is a veteran journalist with 37 years’ experience in print media, television and radio. In 2016, as part of a group of journalists called the SABC 8, he won the Nat Nakasa Award for courageous and brave journalism, as well as the Chairman’s Guardian of Governance Award in 2017 from the Institute of Internal Auditors South Africa.


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