Hlaudi, the Big COO: So What?

2016-07-01 20:57

There is a lot of concern about the role played by Mr Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the Chief Operations Officer, of the South African Broadcasting Corporation in the public broadcaster's drama of big decisions and major shake-ups. His name has become synonymous with all that is laughable, all that is disparaged, all that is foolish and all that is wrong with the state agencies. But his name is also synonymous with bold leadership, sometimes too bold. It is also about firm and divisive leadership, sometimes to the point that causes concern about rights and freedoms guaranteed in the constitution. I think, whether you see him as a monster or a saint, he has in the process made the COO position more significant than before.

My concern right now is not how bad or good Hlaudi is. There is enough said and written by both those who see only positives in his leadership and those who see only negatives in it. There is no way anyone is going to convince naysayers to see any other side of Hlaudi, neither is it possible in the current environment to persuade praise singers that there are many areas of concern in his conduct. There is also no space for being objective in the debate conducted on the basis of th assumption that all is white or black about him, where he is supposed to be seen as either an angel or a devil incarnate.

In this context, it is very difficult to make sense of the broader environment in which all this is happening. It is clear that if you get rid of Hlaudi tomorrow the problem will not be solved. Both sides exaggerate the role of personality in SABC politics since 1994 and as a result diminish the broader systematic and institutional factors in the challenges facing SABC and its constituencies. Both sides elevate Hlaudi as a factor above many factors including those that shape him and his conduct. We must believe that he is bigger than the organization either for good or for bad.

Both demonization and idolization simplify the problems and prepare us for disappointment when we discover that with or without Hlaudi the predicaments of our time will remain. Many want us believe that all was well until a monster or a saint stepped in. This is just not true. It is misleading to place Hlaudi above the context and systemic issues at hand.

Of course, it is easier to hang our anger or happiness on a prominent man in the on-going drama at the SABC. His role is big, but it is also exaggerated. When we are not careful or when driven by specific ideological agendas, we re-write the script of the drama so that there is a superman at the centre bigger than the whole story, the super star on whose survival or killing hangs the destiny of the setting of the drama. We like big-men stories. We like big personality politics. We like big-CEOs economics. It is us who project this onto this drama and find exactly what we are looking for. We have the big-COO story now and we participated in creating it.

Hlaudi is a significant player in the drama, but he is not the drama itself. He has an important role to play, but he is as dispensable as anybody else in the drama. He certainly serves at the behest of the board of the SABC, which like all boards of the nature want to judge executives mainly on what happens to the so-called bottom line. This is what corporatisation does to public institutions in a capitalist society and as part of globalization.

Clearly, Hlaufi has understood that he needed to sort out this bottom line as a COO, especially normalising relations with producers of creative works, respond to the needs of music creators about the local is leaker mantra, ensure financial sustainability, build relations with stakeholders that can contribute to financial health of the organization and address staff complaints about working conditions.

This much an the acting chairperson after Dr Ben Ngubane resigned expressed as the board expectations of the COO and the executive some years ago. Anyone who listened to this would understand why the board would not be swayed to part ways with the COO, giving his role in the financial turn around at SABC, in relations with key stakeholders and so forth. They would only wish that he improves relations with journalists and the editorial staff.

Government is also an important factor in this. It is government that has failed to exercise its mandate as the sole shareholder over the past twenty years that weakened the SABC, allowing it become financially unstable and to have fragile governance at least until a few years ago. The constitution of the board is one major failure of government repeatedly for the past two decades and thus undermined the stakeholder leadership, which is supposed to happen through a strong, united and effective board.

This developed over the years into a systemic governance crisis that allowed for inefficiency in the executive and the rise of camps and strong men in the executive, Hlaudi being one of many before him. He is the first such strong man who is not either a CEO or head of news. This makes him unique. But he rose to such prominence and power due to vacuum in the executive leadership during the long period of governance crises. He saved the SABC during its long period without a strong executive leader; he stepped forward with the will to act strongly to implement the board mandate.

Hlaudi has made the title COO well known in Souyh Africa. Before him, it was a sort of a second fiddle to the CEO position. It did not have defined stature in the public opinion. There was confusion about the position until Hlaudi. While causing much discomfort, Hlaudi has given the COO generally stature for good or for bad, depending on where one stands on the drama at the SABC. His willingness to step forward and take decisions that he thought needed to be taken has made the position look more powerful than it was previously. It has become a pillar for board mandate implementation.

Unfortunately, in the process the position of CEO has diminished mainly because the board has not appointed equally strong characters and personalities to bring balance between the CEO, COO and CFO positions. The last two CEOs did not cover themselves in much glory; they did not show courage of conviction. The last one was suspended over really small matters. The one before is said to have rested in her laurels letting the COO put his head on the block in the financial stabilization of the corporation. We don't know what this side of the story is. Be that as it may, Hlaudi used the position of a COO to endear himself to the board and the shareholder, saving them from repeated embarrassment due to financial and institutional troubles similar to what the board had to contend with earlier.

Hlaudi will not last very long because he has made mistakes and these might lead him being sacrificed to placate voices critical of the direction the SABC is taking. He will most probably leave amid celebration in some quarters and disappointment in others. But we shall remember him, for good or for bad, as a COO who did something to stand out. It is the duty of board and shareholder to discipline him when he violates rules and policies; he is not responsible for passing judgement about his conduct. Hlaudi will be recorded in history, whatever the verdict about his role will be. The worse leaders are those keep themselves clearly and likeable, but fail to shift the ground of change. Black leaders who fail to contribute to transformation are a shame. Leaders who only want to popular will not take bold decisions that may disappoint the status quo for the greater good of the whole society.

We will never know how the poor and general listenership of the SABC offerings think of Hlaudi because the noise from among us middle class for or against clouds all other voices.

In the systemic reforms needed, we will need to ensure we don't diminish the role, but will enhance that of the board, the CEO, shareholder, staff and the interested public.

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