Newsmaker: Meet the minister of the SABC

2012-12-09 10:00

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Public broadcaster’s COO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, tells us why we can’t see and hear it all

The SABC’s acting chief operations officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, is engrossed.

His eyes are glued to the TV in his luxurious perch on the 27th floor of the broadcaster’s headquarters in Joburg.

I am watching him watching himself intently on the TV.

Motsoeneng is a slight man with hawk eyes and the gait of a “cleva”, a township smartarse.

He gets to work before everyone else and leaves after. “Hard working” is the attribute his detractors and supporters alike assign as his greatest asset.

A bodyguard sits in the spacious reception, and another in the passage of the broadcaster’s mahogany row.

This is a new development.

I worked at and covered the tenures of several SABC CEOs and their COOs – none have had guards posted this way.

Playing on the outmoded TV set is a recording of an internal broadcast from earlier this year. Held to welcome then-new CEO Lulama Mokhobo, all the broadcaster’s provincial offices had a turn to say something.

Each provincial rep welcomed the new CEO and then praised the acting COO like this: “Ntate Motsoeneng, the loss to the province (Free State, where he first worked), is a gain to the nation,” says one staffer.

The next adds: “Ntate Motsoeneng, you have saved the SABC a lot of money. We are behind everything you do.”

And another: “The SABC is becoming more stable. This is attributed to the acting COO. You are giving platforms to our concerns, fears, cries.”

So it goes for a good hour as each region welcomes the CEO and praises Motsoeneng to high heaven.

Many sources say Motsoeneng is running the SABC, and he certainly seems to be making all the key decisions.

He is enraptured by his own image, perhaps it is his antidote to a fortnight which has seen him hog headlines for several acts of censorship at the SABC.

The DVD recording feels staged, but Motsoeneng is a staff favourite, according to many at the broadcaster.

He is also the go-to guy for SABC board chairman, Ben Ngubane. He has raised incomes at lower levels, fought for low-paid contract workers (he was one in the early 1990s), and rails against the SABC’s infamous pay and benefit gaps between managers and workers.

The Communication Workers Union this week warned the “liberal media” to get off the COO’s back after decisions to bar a Fish & Chips Co advert, spoofing the cost of Nkandla, as well as a Metro FM talk line-up on Monday featuring three influential political journalists.

He calls advertising executive Anton Heunis and radio programming head Lesley Ntloko to his office late Friday afternoon to explain why.

Neither seem happy to be there and neither seem convinced about the calls on the ad and the talk show.

It’s clear Motsoeneng makes every decision on political content critical of the governing party.

“I can’t comment on that,” he says on whether he is a card-carrying member of the ANC. I guess this means he is. Why is a COO so sleeves-rolled-up and in-up-to-the-elbows on editorial decisions?

“I am part of the management team ... it was a management decision,” he says, as Ntloko circles the section of the SABC’s editorial policy they relied on. “When an event of national importance is of a party political nature, editorial staff are to ensure the SABC policies on objectivity, accuracy, fairness, impartiality and balance are adhered to.”

Motsoeneng and Ntloko’s interpretation of this is that the ANC, for example, must be represented on every panel where it is discussed.

Taken to extremes, this will disable news completely and impose unnecessary hurdles on the free flow of information. I hazard that no public broadcaster in the world interprets “balance” or “fairness” this way.

“You are expressing your personal view as you are entitled to,” says the COO.

But if political parties and the public are upset by adverts or talk shows, they can complain to the industry regulators – the conservative Advertising Standards Authority and the excellent Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

“SABC management is responsible for the running of the SABC, including what is broadcast on radio and television,” says the COO.

His answers are bureaucratic and, to my ear, more those of a government communicator.

Start at reception at the SABC and its airy halls with great art feel creative, but the portraits of President Jacob Zuma, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and Communications Minister Dina Pule give it the feel of a state department.

So do the security guards who detain us for half an hour to note everything in a ledger. It felt as if we were on our way up to visit a Cabinet minister.

‘I take unpopular decisions’

Acting chief operations officer (COO) of the SABC Hlaudi Motsoeneng has confirmed that Metro FM talk show host Sakina Kamwendo will not face disciplinary action for the line-up she planned for Metro FM’s Tuesday evening show.

The axed show, a look at how the media is covering the run-up to the ANC conference at Mangaung next week, was to feature S’thembiso Msomi of the Sunday Times, Sam Mkokeli of Business Day and Andrew England of the Financial Times.

It will be broadcast again, but this time with an ANC representative, said Motsoeneng.

He would not comment on ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe’s comment that the decsion to axe the show was “stupid”.

Motsoeneng has been a journalist for almost 24 years. He has claimed headlines for being possibly the country’s only COO of a major corporation who has no matric. Besides street-smarts, what qualifications does he have for the job?

“Various qualifications, recognition and participation at various levels, including a national certificate in generic management; a Thompson Foundation (Cardiff University) certificate; the SABC leadership development programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science; the analysis of contemporary social issues at Wits University; a certificate of positive role models awarded by the Free State Youth Commission and a special recognition from University of the North for achievements as a journalist and for community service.”

Asked what he saw as his greatest attribute and the source of his growing power at the SABC, he said: “I can take decisions and take unpopular decisions. I generate revenue. If you give me a job, I get the job done.”

- City Press

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