The appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng as the SABC’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) despite his dishonest and prima facie criminal behaviour raises serious questions about the willingness of public institutions and our government to respect constitutional institutions and to obey the law. It suggests that instead of viewing the public protector as an ally who can assist in rooting out dishonesty, maladministration, corruption and criminal behaviour, some public institutions and government ministers view the public protector as an irritating impediment to impunity.
Some days I yearn for the time before the National Assembly selected Thuli Madonsela as public protector. In those more innocent and altogether more soothing times, I could read a report of the public protector without having my remaining trust in the basic decency and honesty of most human beings shaken to the core.
Now, because South African journalists who are not employed by the SABC often hunt in packs (journalists from the SABC seldom hunt at all) they often manage to create a negative image of an individual that accords with their own agendas, anxieties and prejudices.
Once the pack identifies a public persona as worthy of scorn, the good publicity ends and the relentless, predictable vilification continues apace. Nuance, even-handedness, and any consideration of the other side of the story seldom come in to the equation. I therefore try to be circumspect and not to assume the worst of a public official or politician in the absence of clear evidence that he or she is a scoundrel.
Over the past week, as the hysteria around the appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng reached a crescendo, I wondered whether Mr Motsoeneng may not have been unfairly targeted in this way because of his (authoritarian-sounding) support for the licencing of all journalists. Maybe it is not such a big deal that Mr Motsoeneng does not have formal qualifications – as long as he does his job diligently and with the necessary integrity?
I therefore went back to the report published by the public protector earlier this year on the shenanigans at the SABC to determine whether Mr Motsoeneng was not being unfairly painted as a dishonest, bumbling, scoundrel. Sadly, in this instance, the report of the public protector suggests, if anything, that journalists have been too kind to Mr Motsoeneng.
The public protector found that when Mr Motsoeneng first applied for a job at the SABC he completed an application form in which he indicated that he had passed Standard 10 (“matric”) in 1991 at the age of 23. However, he only provided symbols for 5 subjects (in which he indicated he had attained 4 E and one F symbols).
During an interview with the public protector, Mr Motsoeneng admitted falsifying his matric qualification and blamed others, whom he said told him to make up his matric symbols from the top of his head, which he did. With regard to the matric certificate, the form says “outstanding”, giving the impression that the certificate exists and would be submitted in due cause.
The report quotes Mr Motsoeneng as telling the public protector:
“From me … for now because I do understand all the issues, I was not supposed, to be honest. If I was … now I was clear in my mind, like now I know what is wrong, what is right, I was not supposed to even to put it, but there they said, “No, put it”, but what is important for me Public Protector, is everybody knew and even when I put there I said to the lady, “I’m not sure about my symbols” and why I was not sure Public Protector, is because I go, a sub, you know I remember okay in English I think it was “E”, because it was you know after … it was 1995.”
The report quotes from several letters sent by the SABC HR Department in which Mr Motsoeneng is requested to provide a copy of his outstanding matric certificate. It also quotes an undated response from Mr Motsoeneng, in which he indicates that he was still not in possession of the said certificate. He undertook to provide it as soon as he received it.
Now, in law, you commit fraud – a criminal offence – when you unlawfully make a misrepresentation with the intention to defraud which causes actual prejudice or which is potentially prejudicial to another.
It would not be a defence to claim that another person had told you to commit fraud, just as it would not be a defence to murder to claim somebody else told you to kill a person. Neither is it a defence to fraud to say that your fraudulent representation was known to be fraudulent by many people.
Where you persist in your misrepresentation (as Mr Motsoeneng did when he promised to provide the “outstanding” matric certificate) it will be easier for the state to prove that you had the intention to defraud.
In law, the actual or potential prejudice need not be financial but can also be to reputation or dignity. More importantly it exists where some aspect of public administration is materially inconvenienced.
The fraudulent nature of the misrepresentation was confirmed by a 2003 SABC Group Internal Audit, which confirmed that Mr Motsoeneng had misrepresented himself by stating that he passed matric in 1991. The Group Internal Audit also established that when Mr Motsoeneng applied for an Executive Producer’s post at Lesedi FM in 2003, the requirements for the post was a Degree or Diploma in Journalism with eight years’ experience in the production of Radio Current affairs programme.
Given this overwhelming evidence and given the admission of wrongdoing by Mr Motsoeneng himself the public protector concluded:
“The allegation that Mr Motsoeneng committed fraud by stating in his application form that he had completed matric from Metsimantsho High School is substantiated. By his own admission during his interview, Mr Motsoeneng stated in his application form that he had passed standard 10 (matric), filled in made-up symbols in the same application form and promised to supply a matric certificate to confirm his qualifications. He did so knowing that he had not completed matric and did not have the promised certificate. His blame of Mrs Swanepoel and the SABC management that stating that they knew he had not passed matric, is disconcerting. If anything, this defence exacerbates his situation as it shows lack of remorse and ethical conduct.”
What seem particularly disconcerting is that Mr Motsoeneng persisted in his dishonest behaviour, first lying to the public protector by denying he misrepresented his matric results but then, after being confronted with the employment application, admitting to the fraudulent misrepresentation.
Three perplexing questions arise form this sorry saga.
The first is why Mr Motsoeneng had not been prosecuted for fraud. Why had the relevant authorities at the SABC not requested the police to investigate the alleged fraud perpetrated against the SABC by Mr Motsoeneng?
The second question that arises is why so many people – including the previous and current chair of the SABC Board – have been eager to support the employment of a confidence trickster like Mr Motsoeneng in one of the most important positions at the corporation?
The previous Chair told the public protector in writing that “the SABC perused Mr Motsoeneng’s file and could find no evidence that he misrepresented his qualifications.”. This could not have been true as Mr Motsoeneng left the SABC under a cloud in 2003 after its own Group Internal Audit investigation found that he had misrepresented his qualifications.
Now, as Prof Burchell states in his textbook on Criminal Law: “Fraud is the crime of the liar, the cheat, the confidence trickster”. Why have so many people – some of them of high standing – been prepared to support and protect a “liar”, a “cheat”, a “confidence trickster”? Was there political pressure on them to do so, or did they do so because of their own lack of a moral compass?
The third question that arises is why the newly appointed Minister for Propaganda, Faith Muthambi, would ignore the recommendations by the public protector that the SABC should take disciplinary steps against Mr Motsoeneng for his dishonesty, abuse of power and improper conduct. This failure is almost certainly irrational and I would be extremely surprised if a court does not set aside the decision to confirm Mr Motsoeneng’s appointment.
The failure is also in conflict with the stated policies of the governing party to be serious about rooting out maladministration and corruption. The office of the public protector was created to assist public officials – including ministers – to adhere to the law and to act in a manner that would enhance trust in public bodies like the SABC. Yet, in the case of Mr Motsoeneng the Minister ignored the findings of the public protector and acted in a way that further eroded public trust in the SABC. It cannot be in the interest of the governing party to destroy the credibility of the SABC as it would then be far less likely to be believed by ordinary voters.
The Presidency issued a carefully worded statement claiming that President Jacob Zuma “has no role to play in the appointment of SABC management or staff and did not play any role in the said appointment”. This non-denial denial did not state that the President had not communicated his wishes about the desired appointment to Minister Muthambi or had not “requested” her to ensure the appointment of Mr. Motsoeneng as COO.
Whether the appointment was done to comply with the wishes of President Zuma is not clear. In any event, the statement by the Presidency does not deny it.
What is very clear is that the bizarre statement by Minister Muthambi that an independent law firm’s legal opinion to the board “cleared Mr. Motsoeneng of wrongdoing” and thus renders the appointment rational is a legal nonsense.
In fact, the claim by the Minister that the opinion of a private lawyer can trump the official findings of a constitutional body like the public protector may arguably open the Minister to criminal prosecution for contempt of the public protector in contravention of section 9 of the Public Protector Act.
Why would a new Minister risk her career to endorse a clearly illegal decision that opens her up to criminal prosecution? Could it be that she was merely complying with the request/instructions of the person who appointed her as Minister? Only the minister and the president would be able to enlighten us. DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.