Newsmaker – Lulama Mokhobo: Captain of the bumpy airwaves

2013-09-22 10:01

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First female SABC CEO says she’s turning the ship around

We are stage-managed almost from the moment we step out from the lift and walk past the very important artworks on the 27th floor of the SABC’s towering radio building in Auckland Park.

A security guard stands at a split in the corridor.

To the left is the office of acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng. To the right, chief executive Lulama Mokhobo’s.

We are greeted by the resplendent Brenda Kali, who has the astonishing title of “strategic group communication and reputation turnaround manager”.

Clearly, SABC executives have a reputation problem. Why else would they need a turnaround?

In today’s interview, she will be managing Mokhobo’s reputation. I doubt Motsoeneng would allow his to be managed as easily.

The corporation is still stinging from an acrimonious meltdown of its last board. The battle – which saw Motsoeneng fired, the board resigning and Motsoeneng hired again – leaked into the press through porous boardroom walls revealing more drama backstage than on air.

The SABC would like no more of that, thank you.

A new board of safe, corporate governance types has been announced, but there’s that worrying media claim that they’re basically “ANC lackeys” and there’s that 2013 annual report that needs explaining and, of course, those rumours about Motsoeneng refusing to bow to Mokhobo and telling people he actually runs the show up here on the 27th floor.

The first female CEO in the corporation’s history sits on a grand brown leather couch. She wears a classic slacks suit with a beaded jacket.

Hanging on the wall behind her is a R15?million Irma Stern.

“Once we have turned this ship around, I see this as a hub of culture,” she says when I admire the painting. Mokhobo is very charming.

She pauses before she speaks – calmly and quietly – and never raises her voice.

But on my last visit, she did dissolve into tears when I asked her about being related to shamed minister Dina Pule’s lover, Phosane Mngqibisa, and her son’s involvement in his business.

It’s one of numerous exposés that have flared around Mokhobo in her time as CEO – par for the course at SABC.

Like Motsoeneng, she has survived them all.

“Grace under pressure,” is how The New Age described her, rightly depicting her as a feminine boss who feels no need to be an iron lady.

She beat off Phil Molefe by following the rules – appealing to the board and hiring lawyers – not by testosterone displays.

But it was yet another incident splashed across the media, and she worries about her reputation.

I do not doubt she is a woman of personal integrity, a stickler for following policy, who abhors racism and believes in public broadcasting.

I don’t doubt she works here until 2am, but has still managed to raise her six children well and see them off into the world.

I wonder though about the stage-managing and the apparent naivety of her responses.

Take the new board. I’ve been tracking their backgrounds and all of them are ANC supporters, most with very direct ties to government, I say.

“Well I’m hearing all of that for the first time,” she replies. “I had no clue as to what the political affiliations of the members are and certainly have not been involved in the process.”

And so it goes, even though Mokhobo is one of the chosen – a former SABC manager and businesswoman earmarked for CEO by three successive communications ministers before accepting the job during Pule’s term.

She has survived political wars yet has no knowledge of the politics of the board she serves on? She’s neither stupid nor naive.

I think she plays the game.

Over and over she refers to “the separation of powers” and “the application of policy”.

With her reputation doctor on standby in the room with its spectacular city view, she blames accounting methods for the annual report and inaccurate measuring tools for audience decline.

She spins excellent diversionary arguments.

Yet she also makes concessions.

She admits the building has lost valuable skills that have affected the quality of its TV and upset the nation.

She admits local programming was undercommissioned.

But her main message is that the corporation – “coming out of ICU” – has turned a corner.

She says a new request for programming is on its way, worth more than R300?million; new skills will be attracted; the commercial division will be refocused.

There is an education channel and a sports channel on the way to compete in the new digital environment.

If you believe Mokhobo, on the 27th floor, the future of the SABC looks rosy.

A different picture emerges downstairs – of disillusioned staff, corruption, union battles and personal fiefdoms, in between some inspired workers and solid programming.

I wonder exactly how in touch she is with the building. I ask her frankly what many say behind her back: Is she really running the show, or is she a puppet manipulated by Motsoeneng?

A laugh and her hands raise in the air.

The reputation manager hastily rises from her seat. Mokhobo can’t believe people are saying that. It’s the first she’s heard of it. “Is it because I’m quiet?” she wonders.

“Because I’m not a Generations star, out there attracting media attention? People can say what they want. I am here to work. To push change into this organisation and see it thrive again.”

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