HLAUDI Motsoeneng is the “big man” of the SABC — protected and promoted for protecting and promoting an even bigger man, President Jacob Zuma.

But Hlaudi Motsoeneng is just the most visible manifestation of the continuing ongoing “Zumafication” of the public broadcaster. Behind the scenes, Zuma’s allies are attempting to construct a powerful propaganda machine that places the SABC at the centre of its plans to manipulate public opinion.

To be sure, the politicisation of the SABC started some time before the ascendance of Zuma. In the latter years of the Mbeki presidency, the SABC increasingly took sides in the fierce factional battle between Mbeki and Zuma.

After Zuma’s election as president of South Africa in 2009, the ANC in parliament rushed through the Broadcasting Amendment Bill. This enabled it to replace the SABC board with an interim board that would make executive appointments sympathetic to the Zuma faction. Its first order of business was to appoint Solly Mokoetle as SABC group chief executive.

In 2010, the chairman of the new SABC board, Ben Ngubane (a Zuma appointee) connived with Mokoetle to appoint Phil Molefe as head of news, without consulting the rest of the board. Molefe did the job he was appointed for, instructing senior executives at the SABC — allegedly at the instruction of Luthuli House — to stop giving favourable coverage to Mbeki.

In 2011, the Ngubane board appointed Motsoeneng acting chief operating officer of the SABC.

Motsoeneng’s first brush with controversy had been  back in 2007 when, as an executive producer at Lesedi FM, he was dismissed following charges of racism, dishonesty, and promoting staffers without following due process. He was reappointed a year later by SABC chief executive Dali Mpofu in what was perceived as caving in to pressure from the ascendant Zuma faction. This was not the last time that higher powers would come to Motsoeneng’s rescue.

In early 2013, the SABC board resolved to dismiss Motsoeneng as acting chief operating officer after he allegedly tried to interfere with the handling of a Special Investigating Unit investigation into SABC corruption dating back to 2008. Shortly after this, Ngubane unilaterally reversed the board’s decision to dismiss Motsoeneng. In retaliation, the rest of the board publicly reaffirmed its decision to dismiss him.

The fall-out from this disagreement would lead to the resignation of Ngubane, along with most of the board — allegedly at the behest of Luthuli House.

The new interim board immediately voted to reverse the decision to remove Motsoeneng. This was the second time that Motsoeneng was to miraculously survive at the SABC, but not the last.

Motsoeneng is often referred to as Zuma’s “conduit” by SABC staff. Indeed, he has been known to boast about his strong ties to Zuma and it has been suggested that he ensured favourable SABC coverage for Zuma to head off Kgalema Motlanthe’s challenge for the ANC presidency at Mangaung.

Two senior SABC employees had, in 2011, had requested a public protector investigation into various fraudulent activities involving Hlaudi Motsoeneng. The public protector’s report, issued on February 17 this year made several damning findings, including that Motsoeneng:

• Lied about having obtained a matric certificate in the application process;

• Abused his power by having his salary increased three times in the space of one year, from R1.5-million to R2.4-million;

• Was responsible for the unlawful appointment of Ms Sully Motsweni to various positions and for her subsequent unlawful salary increases;

•“Purged” senior staff leading to “the avoidable loss of millions of [rands]  towards salaries ... and settlements for irregular terminations of contracts”; and

•Unilaterally increased some staff members’ salaries without following the SABC personnel regulations, leading to the SABC’s “unprecedented salary bill escalation by R29-million”.

The public protector directed the board to take disciplinary action against Motsoeneng and to recover all wasteful expenditure incurred as a result of irregular salary increments. She also directed for the minister to take urgent steps to find a new permanent chief operating officer.

None of this happened. Instead, at an SABC board meeting on July 7, the board inexplicably recommended the appointment of Motsoeneng in a permanent capacity.

It was reported that prior to the meeting, Communications Minister Faith Muthambi had arrived at the SABC and entered into a private conference with the SABC chairwoman Zandile Tshabalala, who conveyed the minister’s wishes to the board. The minister duly announced Motsoeneng’s appointment the next morning.

For the third time, instead of being fired, Motsoeneng had been was protected and promoted by high-ranking ANC politicians. It is not hard to figure out why.  

Zuma has never been so embattled. Guptagate, Nkandlagate, Marikana, the arms deal and the spy tapes saga have cast a dark shadow over his presidency. Many in his own party hold him responsible for heavy electoral losses in the 2014 election.

This is why Zuma needs a loyalist at the heart of the SABC to help him survive the inevitable internal backlash.

Motsoeneng is often referred to as Zuma’s “conduit” by SABC staff. Indeed, he has been known to boast about his strong ties to Zuma and it has been suggested that he ensured favourable SABC coverage for Zuma to head off Kgalema Motlanthe’s challenge for the ANC presidency at Mangaung.

When Zuma was booed at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, funeral, Motsoeneng saw to it that the spectacle — widely reported on at home and abroad — never made it onto prime-time SABC news bulletins.

Motsoeneng is the perfect lieutenant to ensure positive reportage of the president — ruthless, calculating and willing to abuse power to achieve his ends.  But it would be a mistake to think that Zuma’s plan to control the airwaves ends with Motsoeneng.

On 16 July 16, the president proclaimed that the old Department of Communications would become the new Department of Telecommunications and Post.

The SABC would move to a newly constituted Department of Communications that would include the Government and Communication Information System previously housed in the Presidency.

Ominously, Icasa — the regulator of the SABC — is also under the aegis of the new department, along with the Film & Publications Board with its far-reaching powers to proscribe the publication and distribution of sensitive material.

This proclamation gives Zuma loyalist Muthambi unprecedented influence over crafting and disseminating the government’s message.

Shortly after assuming office, minister Muthambi announced that she would reduce the number of SABC board members from 12 to five, and transfer ring parliament’s powers to hire and fire the board to herself. Her role in the appointment of Motsoeneng confirmed her complicity in the ongoing politicisation of the SABC.

Motsoeneng’s protection and promotion is just one component of a plan to ensure that the entire state communication apparatus sends out a positive message about Zuma’s track record — a “good story to tell” in ANC parlance.

The Zumafication of the SABC should be of concern to every South African with an interest in protecting our constitutional democracy. Indeed, it is going to take the collective effort of the media, civil society and political parties to stop it.

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