Opinionista John Matisonn 13 December 2016

Who is Prof Maguvhe? And on whose shoulders does he stand?

The MPs that SABC chairman Professor Mbulaheni Maguvhe will confront in Parliament at 16:00 today (Tuesday December 13) are like no body the country has ever seen – as united as it’s possible to imagine in the belief that the SABC has been subject to state capture so severe that emergency triage is needed just for the public broadcaster to survive.

The last time ANC MPs were so publicly united with the opposition in standing up to one of their own was 20 years ago, when members of another broadcast body, the regulator, were attacked by Barbara Hogan, Andrew Feinstein and Laloo Chiba for corruption. Feinstein was out of Parliament in five years, Hogan five years later, and Chiba stayed a revered but obscure and mostly backroom parliamentarian.

Monday was truly significant. MP after MP took turns making extensive apologies to courageous SABC journalists who have suffered intimidation, death threats and loss of income for trying to be true to ethical requirements in the face of political interference and corruption. ANC MPs were humbler than the opposition, admitting the failure of Parliament, the government and the SABC board to protect them and this national institution.

It was unusual. They promised their report would not be mild.

Before the journalists spoke, senior executives forced out by the “authoritarian” executive Hlaudi Motsoeneng took turns explaining how they lost jobs and income after refusing to approve some scheme they thought improper. At the same time as the hearing, a judge ordered that Motsoeneng leave his current job at the SABC, and is not eligible for any position there until the Public Protector’s remedial actions have been properly complied with.

A simple yet breathtakingly bold narrative emerged in Parliament yesterday, and most MPs present accepted it was true.

First, according to a witness, Motsoeneng called a meeting at which a three-page contract was presented by an executive from the Gupta companies, under which SABC news would be “outsourced” to the Guptas, rebranded, and run by their company. SABC would receive no remuneration and would continue to pay many of the costs.

The SABC executive, who refused to go along with this scheme, soon fell out with Motsoeneng, and was fired. The Gupta interests soon came up with a second scheme. Under this agreement, according to former political editor Vuyo Mvoko, the SABC would effectively subsidise the Guptas’ newspaper, The New Age.

Mvoko explained that the newsmaker breakfasts run by the paper using political influence to bring government ministers to talk to paying guests provides an income to the New Age, and expenses to the SABC. The SABC losses fuel Gupta profits, an incensed Mvoko said.

Mvoko and his colleague, Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki, sister-in-law of former President Thabo Mbeki, spoke with particular brilliance and passion about the role of the public broadcaster in encouraging thought and serving citizens, and movingly appealed to Parliament to save the corporation.

Their words will be ringing in MPs’ ears when, responding to a legal parliamentary summons, Maguvhe, the obscure associate professor from the University of South Africa who is the SABC chairman and sole non-executive board member, takes the witness bench this afternoon. Until now, he has dismissed Parliament’s constitutional oversight with contempt, carrying on making decisions at the corporation despite his board’s lack of a quorum. Last week he staged a walkout from the same committee.   

Yesterday ANC and opposition MPs asked witness after witness for the source of Motsoeneng’s power. It was 21:00 at night before a younger SABC journalist, Lukhanyo Calata, tentatively suggested the name on everyone’s lips, President Jacob Zuma.

Will yesterday’s court decision against his ally, Motsoeneng, finally bring humility to a chairperson who has challenged Parliament, the Constitution and even the arithmetic of a quorum?

Perhaps. It’s impossible to predict. In the ongoing soap opera that is the SABC’s governance, anything could happen: humility, arrogance, a resignation, or defiance. Last week his reason for walking out was that Parliament had not translated all the documents into braille. It emerged that documents had been provided timeously and in the form needed for the SABC to do that.

Only in the first few years of democracy was the SABC more or less left to get on with its work. But for a long time, boards and executives have been like games of musical chairs, constantly changing. Each change has brought new decisions, new programmes, new personnel, new instability. Many good journalists don’t stay.

There is something fitting, in the Age of Zuma, about appointing a blind man to chair the one state enterprise for which sight is particularly useful – a television company.   

MPs’ humility is justified. Wave after wave of good journalists have abandoned the place after being unfairly sidelined.

Undermining the constitutional oversight of the SABC has also been going on for a very long time. Under the behind-the-scenes direction of ANC parliamentary chief whip Jackson Mtembu, Vincent Smith’s parliamentary committee is the first indication of a possible return to constitutionality.

A new board will have to be chosen with genuine care and then left unmolested to start a slow and difficult road back. A few kind words and a report will not be sufficient. A board chosen on merit, then left unmolested except for constructive support, will face multiple problems in reducing the R400-million-a-year losses and building an effective broadcaster. This week we saw extremely competent former SABC journalists and executives whose loss is shocking.

They need to be persuaded that this time, the government is really serious. But is it? DM

John Matisonn is the author of GOD, SPIES AND LIES, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, and host of CTV’S BETWEEN THE LINES with John Matisonn.

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