Investigation: King Hlaudi’s rise to power

2016-09-23 05:19
Hlaudi Motsoeneng

Hlaudi Motsoeneng (Denvor de Wee)

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Johannesburg - Hlaudi Motsoeneng is a survivor. South Africa’s broadcasting czar has survived insurmountable obstacles, among them a scathing Public Protector’s report exposing him as a lying rogue and court orders prohibiting him from running the public broadcaster.

Yet Motsoeneng always seems to emerge unscathed.

He is a man, his colleagues learnt, that should never be underestimated.

How did the ambitious young freelancer from Phuthaditjhaba without any struggle credentials rise to such heights at the SABC? How did he, according to some who witnessed it personally, come to have the ear of President Jacob Zuma?

Over the years there have been numerous rumours attempting to explain Motsoeneng’s meteoric career rise.

The most sensational of these is that his mother is a powerful sangoma, whose spiritual strength has even drawn President Jacob Zuma into her orbit.

We set out to find her.

A typical street in Thaba Bosiu, the suburb Hlaudi Motsoeneng grew up in. (Angelique Serrao, News24)

The truth is far more complex. Motsoeneng is where he is through a mixture of luck, a metamorphosis in the politics of the country, patronage, and old-fashioned scheming.

The story of Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s advance started in the valleys and hills of the picturesque eastern Free State town of Phuthaditjhaba, where he grew up.

Before brick homes, mud rondavels with thatch roofs dominated the suburb of Thaba Bosiu.

We found the childhood home of Motsoeneng; a small, humble house with a snow-covered mountain as backdrop.

The house where Hlaudi Motsoeneng grew up. His aunt still lives there. (Angelique Serrao, News24)

Journalists have been here before. The old lady who lives here is Motsoeneng’s aunt, who refuses to give her name.

She is the woman who brought him up, but she is not his mother.

Nobody wants to say who his mother is, or why she did not raise Motsoeneng herself.

In 2014, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela revealed that Motsoeneng had never matriculated from Metsi Matsho High School, just a short drive from the house.

Metsi Matsho High school which Hlaudi Motsoeneng attended. (Angelique Serrao, News24)

It was during this time that his family was besieged by journalists. The frail 90-year old woman invited us to sit down, told us a bit about the family, gave us a tongue-lashing, and sent us packing.

She said she was the older sister of Motsoeneng’s father. She took the boy in when his parents separated. She would not say why he had not gone to stay with his mother.

The old woman sat on a bench outside and told us about the “tsotsi journalists” who had been there before during the “public protector time”. They had been there for one reason – to dig up dirt on her nephew.

“People are trying to bring him down and he is such a hard worker. I am hurt, really hurt by it all,” the old lady said.

“Motsoeneng is educated, he works hard. Thuli Madonsela has tried hard to bring him down. I don’t like that woman one bit.”

She became so emotional at the thought of all this “evil” trying to bring her boy down, that her blue-rimmed irises brimmed with tears. She brought her work-hardened hands to her eyes and tried to rub her pain away.

She believed that if people tried hard enough to bring Motsoeneng down he would have an accident. All the negativity would eventually affect him.

Ahhh Hlaudi Motsoeneng

The pride of his aunt was evident in everyone we spoke to in Thaba Bosiu.

“Hlaudi Motsoeneng? Ahhh Hlaudi Motsoeneng,” strangers smiled when we asked about him. He was a local boy who had made something of himself. His fame meant that anyone from there, any young child, could be anything they wanted one day.

Mamapita Mokoena had that same proud smile on her face when we asked about Motsoeneng. She married into the family 25 years ago. She knew Motsoeneng and he was a good man as far as she was concerned. She had a TV and knew of the controversy that surrounded him; she was not ignorant of the public’s opinion on Motsoeneng.

“We support him. Yes, he makes mistakes. But everyone makes mistakes,” she shrugged.

She said the famous member of her family came home around Christmas time one year, and despite what people thought when looking at his aunt’s house, he was actually a very generous man. He bought them KFC buckets to eat and handed out R1 000 in cash to everyone in need. She estimated that he handed out at least R50 000.  She had received cash handouts like this before.

And not only from Motsoeneng, Mokoena said. She got money from Free State Premier Ace Magashule. There had been a fire in her home and Magashule gave her R1 000 to buy some new clothes, she said.

The house where Hlaudi Motsoeneng's father lives. (Angelique Serrao, News24)

The windows of Motsoeneng’s father’s house are closed, the curtains drawn and the gates locked.

Knocking and calling elicited no response.

“He likes to lock himself inside and not come out,” said his neighbour.

A neighbour across the way said Motsoeneng snr liked to visit his relatives at a nursery school down the road.

He was not there. Instead, we found three of Motsoeneng’s cousins.

EFF member Joseph Mabote, and Lehlohnolo Motsoeneng remember Motsoeneng as a child who liked to play soccer and who loved drama at school.

“He liked being in the community and planning things.”

They said they did not see their cousin often. They had no stories of his generosity or largesse.

Strangely they said they did not know Motsoeneng’s mother’s name and could not describe where to find her.

“She is Ma Motsoeneng.”

Is she a sangoma?

No hesitation in their answer.


 Is she Zuma’s sangoma?

They did not know.

“Nobody speaks about seeing fancy cars,” they said.

A colleague who worked with Motsoeneng said they had heard the rumour about Motsoeneng’s mother many times, but did not believe it.

The colleague said Motsoeneng mentioned being brought up on the streets because his parents allegedly abandoned him and he did not get on with his grandmother who took him in.

“That’s why he didn’t finish matric and it was then that some politicians took him in,” the colleague said.

Enter Tsiame Kenneth (TK) Mopeli, the former chief minister of the apartheid bantustan of QwaQwa.

Mopeli saw something in the young Motsoeneng

We learn that it was Mopeli who saw something in the young Motsoeneng, took him under his wing, and mentored him.

Mopeli was a legend in political circles and governed for 19 years.

According to a eulogy written on Facebook by Moeketsi Paola Lebesa, Mopeli was the great-grandson of King Mokhachane, brother of King Moshoeshoe I – the founder of the Basotho nation.

Mopeli was an educated man and a firm believer in uplifting the youth. He worked as a teacher and radio announcer on Radio Bantu, now the SABC station Lesedi FM.

Mopeli co-founded the Dikwankwetla Party, that won the QwaQwa elections in 1975.

From everyone News24 spoke to, it was clear this relationship was the key in cementing Motsoeneng’s future power. Mopeli was well-known to politicians from all over the spectrum, including Magashule.

With Mopeli as a mentor, a young man with aspirations to power would have had doors opened and introductions made to the important politicians of the time.

Mopeli died in 2014. Motsoeneng was at his funeral. In an article on QwaQwa online, Motsoeneng was quoted as saying that Mopeli was a true leader and when he started out as a journalist he learnt the ANC “loved Mopeli”.

Motsoeneng’s connection to Mopeli was confirmed by family members, as well as a politician who knew the SABC COO “when he was too poor to even afford a bicycle”.

Mahlomola Majake was a dedicated ANC Free State member for 26 years. He recently however defected to the EFF.

The politician works from the same offices where Motsoeneng used to work. Downstairs in the early 1990s, this was where Radio Sesotho used to be. It became Lesedi FM at some point and moved out of Phuthaditjhaba. Motsoeneng’s first job was in the same place where his mentor, Mopeli, used to work.

The offices where Lesedi FM used to be situated in the former QwaQwa. (Angelique Serrao, News24)

Majake knew Motsoeneng in those days. He was a Congress of South African Students (Cosas) member and Motsoeneng, a young freelancer, who gave him coverage.

“He used to carry around that radio bag with a mic and recorder. We often had to give him lifts to stories because he had no transport,” said Majake.

He said that at the time they appreciated the work Motsoeneng did because he gave them media coverage. Majake described the other radio journalists as arrogant who wouldn’t give the young politicians they were then, the time of day.

“I must give him credit, he made a contribution to where I am today,” Majake said.

But even then, there were rumours about Motsoeneng, Majake said.

“People said he was a puppet, a mouthpiece placed there by the-then Prime Minister TK Mopeli,” Majake said. “Not a week went by when he didn’t broadcast a positive story on him.”

A young Motsoeneng did everything possible to mingle with politicians, Majake said.

“Later he went to Lesedi FM in Bloemfontein and the politicians he mingled with were ANC politicians.”

A SABC employee who was there when Motsoeneng was moved to the Bloemfontein office in 1992, said he begged to be brought to the regional office.

“He was a mere stringer when he started. He didn’t even have soles on his shoes. He pleaded to be given work. He was paid R25 for every story he filed in Sesotho.

His English was broken. He wanted to come to Bloemfontein. He said he needed to be closer to the newsroom so that he could learn.”

Despite not having a matric certificate, he was hired.

Majake says Motsoeneng met two colleagues at the radio station who were always together: Sebolelo Ditlhakanyane and Sophie Mokoena.

Today they are two of the most powerful employees of the SABC. Mokoena is acting political editor of television news and Ditlhakanyane head of radio news.

Both were named in the controversy around the firing of eight SABC journalists. Mokoena allegedly told journalist Vuyo Mvoko that Motsoeneng was upset with comments he (Mvoko) had made on his TV show about the ANC.

Ditlhakanyane co-signed the dismissal letters of seven senior journalists, who were later reinstated.

Majake said the three – Motsoeneng, Mokoena and Ditlhakanyane – have been close friends for a long time.

Ditlhakanyane also comes from Phuthaditjhaba. Mokoena was raised in Frankfort, a town a short distance away.

“The three of them were always together and they all made friends with the politicians. They gave Ace [Magashule] airtime when he had that fight with Terror Lekota. With their constant coverage they helped push Ace into power,” Majake said.

Mokoena said she had interacted with many politicians over the years and it was part of her job.

“It does not make them my friends. I had nothing to do with Magashule,” Mokoena said.

She said she was tired of journalists attacking others in their profession and demanded to know who News24’s sources were.

“I am tired of my name being dragged through the mud. I will take this matter to the courts and you will reveal your sources. This is just mudslinging.” 

Ditlhakanyane referred media queries to SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago, who did not respond.

Magashule was ANC provincial chairperson since the dawn of democracy, but it was only when Zuma came into power in 2009 that he was made premier. He and Lekota were known as political competitors.

Majake said Motsoeneng had always been ambitious, even from a young age; he remembered an incident at the funeral of a journalist, where Motsoeneng told legendary presenter Thuso Motaung that he would be his boss one day.

“They didn’t believe him, but it happened,” Majake said. The three journalists tried to get as close as possible to the ruling elite, he said. This pushed Motsoeneng into power.

Colleagues who worked with Motsoeneng in the Bloemfontein SABC office agreed with this synopsis of close friendships between the journalists and the politicians at the time.

“He and Sebelelo [Ditlhakanyane] were very close. They would joke around and go on lunches together,” one said.

Another described the friendships as a “power group”.

“The only person I ever saw Motsoeneng defer to was Ace Magashule. Everyone else he treated like crap. That group pushed Ace all the way. We all saw it.”

The ex-employee said Magashule had influence over the newsroom.

“Ace would decide what the story of the day should be. It wasn’t just Motsoeneng – one editor I knew had three phones, one for home, one for work, and one just for Ace.” 

Magashule said he and the Free State provincial government respected and appreciated the editorial independence at the SABC and would never interfere with the editorial independence of any newsroom.

“The Free State provincial government has strong, professional relationships with various media houses in the province and across the country,” his spokesperson Tiisetso Makhele said.

Magashule 'was not alone'

Magashule was not the only politician Motsoeneng was willing to do stories for, according to other colleagues who worked with him at the time.

In 1997, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri was premier of the Free State. She had been SABC chairperson before that. In 1999, she became communications minister. Motsoeneng’s former colleagues say he cozied up to her.

He was made a permanent employee at the SABC in 1995, at the same time Matsepe-Casaburri was the organisation’s chairperson.

“The politics of the area were still developing in those days. Ace wasn’t as powerful as he is today. First it was Matsepe-Casaburri,” an ex SABC employee explained.

This relationship was referred to in an article in City Press in 2008. According to the newspaper, at Lesedi FM Motsoeneng made friends with many politicians in the Free State, including Matsepe-Casaburri.

“He is very abusive of power. He is the kind of guy who does not have news sense. He will tell you about his political connections, nothing else,” a source told City Press. 

“We always knew he was well connected. He was always able to get top politicians onto his show, like Thabo Mbeki, Terror Lekota, Zuma, and Magashule. He could get anyone,” an ex SABC employee told News24.

“We didn’t know then that he had a strategy behind it all.”

Somewhere, somehow he became close to Zuma in the 1990s, they say.

One colleague said there was a rumour in the Bloemfontein office that Motsoeneng met Zuma before the 1994 elections when he was giving a speech in a Free State town. Motsoeneng went to cover the event. Zuma’s speech was not well received, but Motsoeneng supported him and from that day they were close.

The Sunday Times reported that Motsoeneng would become a regular visitor to Zuma at his Nkandla home, where a goat or sheep would be slaughtered on his weekend pilgrimages.

His former colleagues say Motsoeneng never hid his connection to Zuma.

- Read more here: You can question anyone, except Zuma - Hlaudi to SABC journalists

“I remember sitting in a news meeting one day when Zuma was the deputy president. We needed comment from him on a story we were working on, but he was about to leave for an overseas trip. Motsoeneng stood up and said ‘give me one minute’. He went outside, made one phone call and then came back and told us to send a journalist to the airport, Zuma would be there waiting for us. All it took was one call. He had that kind of pull.”

Another former colleague said they heard him telling people, “If you want to be a minister. I will negotiate for you”.

A group of them went with him once to Zuma’s house.

“We sat there for 30 minutes waiting for Zuma to arrive. He walked past the room we sat in, waved at us and then called Motsoeneng to go with him alone. We sat there and waited for the two of them to finish their meeting.”

It was allegedly because of this politician-friendly approach to journalism that Motsoeneng rose through the ranks at the SABC. He became the executive news producer at Lesedi FM, under Northern Cape regional editor James Barkhuizen.

Interfering with decisions

Motsoeneng began butting heads with Barkhuizen, allegedly interfering with his decisions and openly challenging him.

“We would sit in news meetings and Motsoeneng would completely take over,” one former SABC employee said.

What happened in the Bloemfontein offices in the late 1990s was so destructive it seared itself into the memories of those who were there. 

“You just need to look back to this time to see the kind of man Motsoeneng is. From the day he started at the SABC, he lied [about his qualifications]. Then he caused trouble among his colleagues.

“What kind of man is he? He is the kind of man who destroys lives,” an ex colleague of Motsoeneng’s said.   

As early as 2002, Motsoeneng was named in a forensic audit in an investigation conducted by Deloitte & Touche into the conduct of a news editor in the Bloemfontein office. Journalists claimed that Motsoeneng was promoted to a senior position as a producer because he helped the news editor gain her own promotion. The report indicates that journalists complained the news editor got the job because of “intensive lobbying and political maneuvering by Hlaudi Motsoeneng on her behalf”.

- Also read: Hlaudi's last staff purge cost SABC millions - Public Protector

Motsoeneng was later accused of giving staff increases and hiring people without Barkhuizen’s approval. The open hostility in the office became unbearable and human resources personnel were sent from the head office to calm the situation. But it didn’t work and disciplinary charges were brought against both of them. It led to both being suspended in 2006. Motsoeneng faced an internal probe with allegations of racism, dishonesty, disruption of relations, intimidation and violation of SABC policies.

There were at least three inquiries into problems at the Free State office. They culminated in the 2006 inquiry by the SABC’s group internal audit department, and resulted in him being fired.

Former SABC journalist Ed Herbst wrote in themediaonline in February 2014, that it was Motsoeneng’s generally abusive relationship with Barkhuizen, which led to Barkhuizen leaving the SABC. Two years later, aged 46, Barkhuizen committed suicide. He had worked for the SABC for 24 years.

“Among the things that Barkhuizen was concerned about was Motsoeneng’s vehement objection to him covering a spate of fatal farm attacks against white farmers in the area, and the fact that Motsoeneng was going to broadcast, in its entirety, the inauguration ceremony of an ANC mayor in the region."

City Press reported that Motsoeneng was in limbo two years after being sacked. He appealed against the decision to fire him and it was agreed he would be rehired.

The Star reported that it was Motsoeneng's reinstatement that led to the downfall of SABC group CEO Dali Mpofu and head of news Snuki Zikalala. Mpofu suspended Zikalala for gross insubordination on May 6, 2008, allegedly for refusing to reinstate Motsoeneng. The SABC board suspended Mpofu a few hours later.

Herbst said it was Matsepe-Casaburri who put pressure on then SABC CEO Dali Mpofu to re-employ Motsoeneng.

A few months after his return to the SABC, in February 2011, he was appointed general manager responsible for board and stakeholder relations in the group chief executive officer’s office.

As his colleagues understood it, he was the CEO’s personal political adviser.

Some who witnessed what happened believed Motsoeneng was fired, not because of the fighting that took place in the Bloemfontein office, but because of a play of factional power within the SABC.

The politicians he was close to were not the top elite in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“Zikalala was a Mbeki man. He saw that Motsoeneng was using resources to push Ace and so Motsoeneng fell out of favour. When he was fired it was at the time that the fight to make Zuma the current president started,” an SABC employee who witnessed what happened said.

- Read more here: Herbst: Will SABC history repeat itself? Brown in Zikalala’s footsteps…

It was Zuma who won the political battle and there was pressure to bring Motsoeneng back.

It wasn’t long before he was brought up to Johannesburg.

“Everyone was told that the board needed Motsoeneng to open doors to Zuma. Their relationship had already been long established. So, he sat in board meetings even though he was not a member of the board,” an employee who witnessed events at the time said.

Once Motsoeneng was in the inner circle of the public broadcaster he began cementing his power base, the insider said. Within a few months he was COO.

“He fired those who had any political clout and hired those he believed he could control. He captured board members and at least two members on the portfolio committee of communications,” the source said.

He built pillars of power around himself.

“There is something in his personality that is drawn to power. He is obsessed with it. I wonder where it will lead him next."

Requests for comment from Motsoeneng went unanswered.

Here's the timeline of Motsoeneng's rise to power:

Read more on:    sabc  |  hlaudi motsoeneng  |  media

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