Having risen from humble beginnings, the new SABC board chair knows the value that TV brings to millions.
Bongumusa Makhathini talks fast and passionately, the occasional word stretched out for emphasis or, when he’s really feeling it, the end of a sentence inflected upward like a question mark.
It is after 21:00 on Thursday and the 40-year-old executive is returning from a trip to Mpumalanga for his day job as southern African director of legal and external affairs at British American Tobacco (BAT).
“About 54% of the farmers who farm the tobacco leaf are in Mpumalanga,” he explains.
Makhathini knows about farming. When he was 13 years old, he took his first job to support his family, cutting sugar cane on a plantation in his village in Ongoye, northern KwaZulu-Natal.
It is a far cry from Tuesday morning when, at 08:00, he switched on his phone to find a message from the office of President Jacob Zuma that he had been chosen to be SABC board chair. The decision was about to be announced.
His deputy would be Febe Potgieter-Gqubule, back from her years serving with presidential hopeful Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the African Union Commission.
The side-eyes began at once. The collapse of the board – chaired by Ellen Tshabalala and her deputy, Professor Mbulaheni Obert Maguvhe – that had enabled sacked SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng to preside over an almost R1bn loss in just one year, has been a national sore point.
The near-unprecedented mop-up – a mostly independent interim board, a transparent and effective parliamentary inquiry and the most useful list of names for the new board in years – has been a national glimmer of hope that the country’s democratic institutions can prevail against the looting of the SABC’s coffers.
Makhathini was impressive during his interview, but analysts were wary of his chairmanship of the board of First Lady Bongi Ngema-Zuma’s foundation. Any ties to the president, who has maintained a steely grip on the public broadcaster through several communications ministers, set off warnings. When Zuma delayed the announcement of the board and when the interim board’s term ended, the warnings became alarm bells.
When I ask if he was expecting the news, he said: “Not at all! Nobody gave me any indication that I would be chair.”
He insists he stands to gain nothing but personal satisfaction from serving on the board, describing it as a kind of national duty.
“Any of the 11 [board members] were equally capable of chairing. For me, it is an opportunity to use my skills and expertise to fix what is wrong,” he adds.
As I ask the hard questions, I cannot shake the feeling that Makhathini’s heart is in the right place and, though possibly a bit naive when it comes to the ruthless political machinations at the broadcaster, he comes equipped with a small army of corporate skills, recruited from as far afield as Cambridge.
His life story is remarkable.
“In the village, all we had access to was radio. Ukhozi FM was then called Radio Zulu and you would learn about history, music, religion, news and politics,” he recalls.
“Quite late in my childhood, there were two families that got TVs. There was no electricity, so they used batteries, and it was only special programmes you got to watch, the big matches … There are still millions and millions of South Africans who are relying on the SABC for information.”
The cane he cut belonged to a teaching family, and he made a decision to become a teacher.
“In my village, the only example of educated people is teachers. And with teaching, you were guaranteed a job at the time,” says Makhathini, who is the eldest of five siblings.
With tension between the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the ANC reaching boiling point ahead of the first democratic elections, he had to negotiate a tightrope between IFP neighbours and a school in an ANC area, one that would lead to student politics on the side of the ANC.
When he matriculated in 1995, his father had two cows. “He gave me one of those cows and said: ‘Boy, take this cow and go and sell it and get yourself a driver’s licence.’ And I said to him, ‘Dad, I have never dreamt of driving a car. My dream is to go to university.’ So, I sold that cow for something like R1 400 and I was short of about R200 to register for my bachelor of education degree at the University of Zululand. My uncle gave me the R200. I had no clothes and no money for books. I got a job as a sales assistant at Jet Stores. My uncle continued to give me R50 every month.”
But he had nowhere to sleep. “Basically, when the library closed at about 10 o’clock, I would move to the lecture halls [or] another place until the night went, or squat with a friend using a blanket as a mattress and a blanket. I managed to perform well [and was] one of the best students, which opened up doors.
“I ended up with three bursaries. I could pay for my studies and give my mother some money.”
Makhathini’s calling was helping other rural students get registered, find part-time jobs in Empangeni and help graduates find positions. This is how he landed his first job with global information technology consultants Accenture. He convinced the firm to come and interview students for jobs. They wanted him.
The rest is well documented. An honours in geography; a master’s in economics; a steady rise up the corporate ladder; SA Breweries, which sent him to Harvard Business School in the US; and BAT.
When students disrupted class, demanding higher grades, he did not support them. But he unequivocally supported the Fallists in 2015. He is outspoken about the slow pace of transformation in the private sector.
Helping the Ngema-Zuma NGO
“Are you friends with the president?” I ask.
His sentences inflect upwards as he defends the work done to combat diabetes by Ngema-Zuma’s nonprofit foundation, from which he resigned on Wednesday, and counter any suggestion of presidential influence. “If you join the president’s wife’s nongovernmental organisation (NGO), it has nothing to do with politics. It has nothing to do with the president or what he is about. Look at the foundation’s work.”
He says that “editorial independence is at the core of the SABC” and is grateful to Monday’s high court ruling for clarifying the limits of the communication minister’s powers over the SABC executive. He agrees that permanent executives must be urgently appointed so that the board does not need to meddle in the SABC’s daily running.
He sings the praises of his fellow board members, but they have not met yet and he does not want to speak on their behalf. “There are 11 of us. We are a collective.”
Time will tell how the new, apparently pro-Zuma communications minister Mmamoloko Kubayi deals with the SABC. For his part, Makhathini is relying on his knowledge of board governance. “Accountability must always be key and people’s mandates must be respected.”
On Monday, the new board will have a meet-and-greet.
“The SABC is not yet out of intensive care … For the first few months, it is going to be demanding, but I think it will become manageable,” he says, having arrived home but happy to chat for as long as I need.