Muthambi defends her wide powers at SABC

Cape Town - Communications Minister Faith Muthambi on Tuesday defended her sweeping powers to hire and fire the SABC's top staff and initiate the removal of board members.

Briefing MPs, she challenged the notion that the SABC was an independent public broadcaster, saying in terms of the Companies Act of 2008 it was a state-owned enterprise, with her as government's sole shareholder representative.

This, Muthambi said, meant she and her predecessor Dina Pule had been within their rights to amend a memorandum of incorporation to allow them to appoint the chief executive, operations and financial officers of the company and, where necessary, to suspend them.

Democratic Alliance MP Gavin Davis accused Muthambi of undermining parliamentary oversight of the broadcaster, and taking it back to the apartheid-era model.

"The SABC is not like Eskom, it is not like Transnet, it is an independent public broadcaster and it is governed by the Broadcasting Act... section 11 of the act gives the board the power to control the affairs of the corporation.

"Now this is important because the board is made up of civilians selected by this portfolio committee.

"It is the board that gives life to the idea of public broadcasting, not state broadcasting. But what you are doing with this memorandum of incorporation, you are trying to turn the SABC from a public broadcaster to a state broadcaster.

"Now we had a state broadcaster during apartheid. Do we really want to go back to having a state broadcaster which is run by a minister?"

He added that changes to the memorandum made in February were not as Muthambi claimed, done mainly for the sake of correcting "grammatical errors", but to allow her to tighten her hold over the broadcaster.

"The memorandum fundamentally changes the character of the SABC... the minister is now in charge."

Muthambi responded that he was wrong to view the SABC as different to any other state-owned enterprise.

"I differ with you on that one. The Companies Act now covers the SABC. I don't know who gave you that impression to say it is not a state-owned company," Muthambi said.

She repeatedly invoked the act to counter Davis and suggested it trumped the Broadcasting Act when he challenged her power to appoint and suspend top officials, to change how an acting CEO was appointed, and to call for the removal of a board member.

Davis challenged her to name three board members she was allegedly trying to remove, but she evaded the question.

Regarding her prerogative to remove top officials, she said: "Myself as minister I am the sole shareholder, and I have the authority to appoint the group CEO, COO and the CFO."

"Therefore under the circumstances you also have the responsibility to discipline, or suspend."

Davis said the extended powers meant that in future the minister could impose her preferred candidates, just as she did with Hlaudi Motsoeneng, adding that the failure to advertise his post or shortlist candidates had been illegal.

"And now she wants to put this into documents to make that look as if that's okay."

He added that by drafting regulations to appoint the SABC's most senior official as acting CEO, the minister was paving the way to the top for Motsoeneng. She confirmed him as chief operations officer last year, despite the public protector's finding that he had lied about passing matric.

Muthambi said this change was justified because the board had had problems in dealing with the post - which had been vacant for nine months.

"We have taken this route as the ministry to say that the most senior executive will act in this position and I don't believe there is anything wrong with that."

Motsoeneng then accused Davis of trying to incite staff at the SABC and wrongly describing R3m in irregular expenditure at the broadcaster as wasteful expenditure to create the impression that it had "chowed up" the money.

"We need to respect the honourable member, but first he needs to be honourable before we can accept him," he concluded.

Davis countered that it was part of his job to speak to SABC journalists but one of those had her laptop seized by management in a bid to intimidate her and colleagues from talking to him.

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