Daily Maverick

Faith Muthambi’s tortured legacy

President Jacob Zuma presided over 12 Cabinets and many of his choices would have journalists scrambling to hit Google to find out who they were as the announcements of new Cabinet appointments were made. The biggest dingbat of all had to be Faith Muthambi, whom Zuma appointed Communications Minister in May 2014.

There was the four-day Finance Minister Des van Rooyen, plucked from a badly run West Rand municipality. The Free State politician we now know to be more bendable than a pipe-cleaner, Mosebenzi Zwane, was put in charge of the Mineral Resources department and in charge of regulating what is still a vital sector for the economy. It has never recovered.

And, when David Mahlobo was appointed Intelligence Minister (then called state security), all I could find on the Mpumalanga politician was a story or two about the misuse of a blue light on an official car. He went on to consort with rhino poachers and the Russians.

But the biggest dingbat of all had to be Faith Muthambi, whom Zuma appointed Communications Minister in May 2014. This week, government spokesperson Phumla Williams broke down at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture as she recounted how Muthambi’s treatment had made her relive her apartheid-era torture at the hands of the police.

The Communications Department oversees the work of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) which is what Williams ran. It also oversees the SABC as well as broader broadcasting policy.

Muthambi’s legacy continues to be tortuous and expensive for South Africa: it is partially her failures which this week saw the SABC reporting a loss of R622-million for the year while data costs are so high that her own party, the ANC, has instructed Cabinet to urgently come up with a position paper on how to make them fall.

This week, Muthambi threatened to spill her own beans on Williams, but News24 has reported that she failed to take up an opportunity to cross-examine offered by the commission.

With little political pedigree, Muthambi was appointed to a portfolio vital for the 21st century as it deals with the digital economy from access to data to the regulation of broadcasting. Instead of finally getting digital migration going, within two months of taking the job, the #GuptaLeaks reveal that Muthambi was emailing Tony Gupta and the family lieutenant Ashu Chawla with Cabinet memorandums on how powers should be allocated to her after the split between her department and that of Posts and Telecommunications.

Those draft policies had, in turn, been drafted by a MultiChoice executive which established a triage of almost perfect State Capture.

Last week, US academics Joel Hellman and Daniel Kaufmann told the Zondo Commission that they defined the term as the capture of policy-making and regulation by networks of special interests. This ensured that economic policy was shaped to protect their interests.

Muthambi sat in the middle of such a network as the emails revealed she attempted to use her legislative powers to assist private interests – in this case, those of both the dominant player MultiChoice and the Gupta family.

She was used by the family to help them get a lucrative channel with MultiChoice and to ensure that their lobbying business breakfasts were broadcast live on the SABC at no cost.

The Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) laid treason charges against Muthambi in 2018.

This week, Muthambi’s legacy cost us R622-million more.

This is the size of the loss incurred by the SABC for just 2018. The SABC must now borrow against its debt and it is so cash-strapped that it cannot pay creditors. That too is Muthambi’s legacy as she kept former SABC strongman COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng in his job even after the former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela fingered him for numerous misdeeds, including lying about his qualifications. When she took office in 2014, she also protected the SABC chairperson Ellen Tshabalala who had also taken that role with bogus qualifications.

Muthambi filled her department with “people from the north”, say insiders, in reference to her friends and family members from Limpopo where she hails from. Her cronyism was so complete that Muthambi’s department made zero headway on digital migration, a process to move broadcasting to digital broadband in order to free up spectrum to ease up data. South Africa is seven years late with the global deadline for migration and we feel it in sky-high data costs. This failure is incalculable and politically fraught. The ANC has now instructed Posts and Telecommunications Minister Siyabonga Cwele to urgently find ways to reduce data costs – a political task that Muthambi and other communications ministers have failed to complete, despite huge budgets and expenditures on migration.

The GCIS staff, led by Williams, resisted the capture of the institution and it saw off Mzwanele Manyi who worked as director-general and later as an adviser to Muthambi.

Staff like Williams undertook a campaign of resistance to all forms of corruption, refusing to sign dodgy invoices and even holding the line on the important bid evaluation committee where government advertising decisions were made. Started by ANC stalwart Joel Netshitenzhe and his deputy Yacoob Abba-Omar, the GCIS has always been staffed by principled civil servants who held the line against Muthambi. Although Muthambi commandeered the procurement function from Williams, not even the people she and Manyi put on it capitulated to their pressure.

Advertising numbers reveal that the Guptas were never able to capture the lion’s share of the government advertising budget and that they kept their newspaper and television station going from state-owned enterprise advertising budgets. For that, the nation owes them a debt of gratitude, but South Africa is and will count Muthambi’s costs for many years. DM

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