Judge Raymond Zondo has at this stage been listening to accounts of South African corruption for over a year. Yet there are still moments where Zondo appears briefly overcome by the scale of the graft his commission of inquiry is helping to expose.
Having heard the testimony of SABC board chair Bongamusa Makhathini and CEO Madoda Mxakwe as to the precarious status of the broadcaster’s finances, Zondo could not hold back his frustration and bemusement.
What had happened at the SABC, Zondo said, was consistent with the pattern observed at most of the country’s state-owned entities: that the bodies had been allowed to slide into financial chaos and maladministration despite the many people tasked with exerting oversight.
MPs in Parliament’s portfolio committees; ministers; CEOs and CFOs of the state-owned entities…
“How did all of these things happen when there were all of these people?” Zondo asked. “It’s a very, very worrying thing. What is it that, as a country, we got wrong?”
In the case of the SABC, the finger has already been pointed squarely at former COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng, former communications minister Faith Muthambi, and a number of their enablers.
The SABC executives appearing before the Zondo Commission this week were not there to rehash this territory, but to give an account of where the broadcaster finds itself today in its attempts to recover from the years of capture.
SABC board chair Bongamusa Makhathini, CEO Madoda Mxakwe and head of news Phatiswa Magopeni are all relatively recent arrivals at the broadcaster, and all three made it clear that they had inherited an institution in disrepair.
“The SABC is technically insolvent,” Mxakwe told the commission bluntly.
Assets do not match liabilities, creditors cannot be paid, and employees are “very depressed” because of the ongoing uncertainty over whether salary obligations can be met.
In a pattern matching those of executives brought on board to stabilise other SoEs, both Makathini and Mxakwe expressed frustration with the lack of support they are being granted to right the ship.
Makhathini told of the blowback received by the SABC board after announcing plans to axe 2,000 jobs at the broadcaster as part of its cost-saving efforts. He said that reducing costs was essential to turning around the SABC, but the political fallout made this very difficult.
“They will label you as somebody who is against transformation, when they’re hiding corruption under transformation,” he said.
Makhathini’s primary issue, however, was that the SABC has yet to receive a cent of the R3.2-billion bailout it needs – despite having met the conditions stipulated.
“To hold back the entire amount when you know the organisation is blamed, people’s lives are at risk… it leaves a lot of confusion.”
CEO Mxakwe expressed the same concern, saying: “When I took this job, my understanding was that there would be capital injection.”
Mxakwe said that the conditions in which SABC employees are currently working are unsafe, citing incidents involving fire, diesel fumes and problems with lifts in the old buildings.
The executives said that the SABC’s financial woes were the reason behind the broadcaster’s strongly criticised decision not to broadcast major sporting events. Makhathini explained that the SABC has lost about R2.3-billion over the past few years due to the exorbitant cost of the sports rights.
Although part of the SABC’s mandate as a state broadcaster is to air sports of national importance, Makhatini said it is currently impossible to comply with this function because it is financially inviable.
SABC news head Phatiswa Magopeni told the commission that when she arrived at the broadcaster in March 2018, she found a newsroom which was similarly failing to meet its obligations to the South African public.
“Getting into that environment, I found decay,” Magopeni said.
“The people supposed to lead the newsroom were not trusted by journalists in the newsroom. They had no legitimacy.”
She also encountered systems which had been shockingly impaired by editorial interference.
Magopeni recounted sitting in the SABC control room while news bulletins were airing, and the control room telephone would ring.
“These would be calls from external parties telling the producers not to put certain stories on air, or to tell producers to change stories that are running.”
She said that journalists were “getting instructions both internally and externally”, and the results were evident in a “battered news brand with no credibility”.
The current financial crunch at the SABC is also adversely affecting its reporting. Magopeni said that the SABC newsrooms went into their election coverage 18 journalists short.
She stressed that the broadcaster’s journalists also have to work in challenging conditions, including both facing intimidation from politicians and the threat of violence from the public. While covering the recent xenophobic looting in Johannesburg, an SABC news van was attacked.
Yet despite Magopeni’s requests for “hostile environment training” for journalists, and protective gear, she was told that no money was available.
“We expose [journalists] to risk by not offering them the right protection,” Magopeni warned.
The SABC newsroom also sees reporters working without laptops, and the absence of an African languages editor.
But Magopeni was adamant that progress is also being made to address both the negative institutional culture and the corrupted editorial process.
Shortly after she took up her position, Magopeni said that an SABC journalist reported that former communications minister Faith Muthambi was attempting to interfere with the broadcast of a provincial ANC manifesto election launch.
Magopeni’s response was immediate: to get the journalist to appear live on air to report what had happened.
“I said: ‘Put it on record’,” Magopeni said. “We will not conceal information.”
In a thinly-disguised reference to Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s notorious directive to SABC staff to stop broadcasting footage of protests, Magopeni added: “Censorship is despicable”. DM