More trouble at Fawlty Towers

What's in store at the SABC following the resignation this week of its group CEO, Lulama Mokhobo? By Duncan McLeod.

Duncan-McLeod-180-profileSo, there’s more trouble at Fawlty Towers in Auckland Park. Just two years into her five-year term, SABC group CEO Lulama Mokhobo is stepping down, citing “exhaustion”. It’s a fresh setback for the public broadcaster, which has lurched from one crisis to another for the best part of a decade.

Although Mokhobo was quiet and reserved — it’s said she lacked the strength to take on politically powerful acting group chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng — she achieved more than her predecessors. She righted a sinking ship, bringing the SABC back from the brink of financial disaster.

She now says it’s time to move on, that a new type of leader is needed. Its financial position is much healthier than it was when she took the reins — it’s repaid a government loan and has R1,2bn in the bank — and it now needs someone who can take full advantage the switch to digital terrestrial television will offer the SABC, she says.

In a wide-ranging interview with me this week, Mokhobo denied she was leaving because of the controversial Motsoeneng, who is said to be the real centre of power at the broadcaster.

Mokhobo admitted to me that she had “robust” disagreements with Motsoeneng in her two years as CEO, but insisted this was positive for the broadcaster and that companies whose leaders agree on everything all the time can never make progress. She insisted, too, that her views prevailed when she was not convinced about something Motsoeneng advocated, and that he accepted this.

Perhaps so, but a controversial R550m channel supply deal that the SABC signed with MultiChoice last year raises questions about where the real power lies at the broadcaster. The deal, signed off by Motsoeneng without sight from Mokhobo, bars the SABC from carrying its channels over a television platform that uses encryption technology known as conditional access.

Since then, the SABC has sided firmly with MultiChoice in a high-stakes battle with e.tv over whether government-subsidised digital set-top boxes should include encryption. E.tv last year accused its rivals of crafting a commercial contract that directly contradicts government policy.

It’s intriguing that Mokhobo didn’t have sight of arguably the most important commercial contract the SABC entered into while she was at the helm. She was travelling at the time, she said, and Motsoeneng, who the board named as acting CEO in her absence, had “full delegated responsibility”. When asked, she declined to say whether she would have signed the contract. “That’s an unfair question, pass.”

But she defended the decision, saying it ensured that the broadcaster’s 24-hour news channel would be profitable throughout the five-year duration of the contract. National treasury had declined to stump up the cash the SABC needed for the channel, and under an older plan she had approved, the channel wouldn’t have been profitable beyond two-and-a-half years.

But the question remains: did the SABC become a willing pawn in MultiChoice’s war with e.tv in exchange for the R550m in cash that would allow it to run a profitable 24-hour news channel?

SABC-640

Mokhobo’s answer was cryptic. “I cannot say so. I can’t comment on that,” she said. “The perception is there, and so it must just be tested. It would be improper to comment on that when the perception has not been tested. It’s an hypothesis. If there is an hypothesis, you need to confirm it.”

So, what happens next at Auckland Park? That’s up to communications minister Yunus Carrim.

If Carrim wants to stabilise the SABC and ensure it is able to take full advantage of the vast opportunities offered by the move to digital broadcasting, he needs to ensure that whoever replaces Mokhobo doesn’t get the job because of political connectedness or a willingness to bend news coverage in favour of the ruling party.

What the SABC desperately needs is a strong, commercially minded leader, one whose authority won’t be undermined by a second centre of power.

It needs to recover credibility with a television-viewing public that is growing ever-wearier of its offerings. The fact that only 36% of television-owning households pay their licence fees speaks volumes about South Africans’ view of their public broadcaster.

  • Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral. Find him on Twitter
  • This column was first published in the Sunday Times
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  • Mark Williams

    This article is the most balanced one I have had the pleasure of reading.The question that needs to be asked is why Multichoice did the deal with SABC in the first place. Naspers has enough resources and capabilities to run their own news Channel instead of E News,ANN 7 or SABC supplying the news. I know why! I was involved in the 1st news pilot in 1991.” Mnet the real story” still needs to be produced.

  • kid black

    never seen a bigger bunch of clowns in charge of such a large button.

  • Davebee

    I wouldn’t put too much faith in Carrim setting this SABC Reality Show to rights, he still can’t fire a gang of illegal wild cat strikers who are disrupting the entire postal service.
    The ‘shine’ went off Carrim pretty swiftly.

  • Vusumuzi Sibiya

    >>If Carrim wants to stabilise the SABC and ensure it is able to take full advantage of the vast opportunities offered by the move to digital broadcasting, he needs to ensure that whoever replaces Mokhobo doesn’t get the job because of political connectedness or a willingness to bend news coverage in favour of the ruling party.

    So an incompetent moron, who does not favor the ruling would do just fine as far as TC is concerned… there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having anyone politically connected in the position just as long as that person is competent and has the leadership qualities to take full advantage of the opportunities that digital migration offers.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    I read it as Duncan saying we need someone who puts the interests of the public first, not the interests of their struggle buddies.

    I’m not sure where you got the “incompetent” bit from, I think it’s taken for granted for any job position ever, that “competence” is wanted. If it’s not stated, one should assume they’re looking for someone competent, not “an incompetent moron” like you suggest.

  • Vusumuzi Sibiya

    >>I think it’s taken for granted for any job position ever, that “competence” is wanted.

    … and the fact that you are politically connected and favor the ruling party shouldn’t come in as a measure of that competence, which is the point which I’m making…

    But of-course you wouldn’t have read it that way now would you?

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    I understood your point, but don’t agree with it – being competent isn’t enough, one has to be able to act – although it’s possible a struggle buddy might choose the public over his or her cronies’ needs, history has shown time and again this almost certainly won’t happen.

  • Vusumuzi Sibiya

    On the contrary… it is precisely because there’s always robust debate amongst comrades, as eluded to by Mokhobo in this article when describing her relationship with Motsoeneng, that the ruling party remains as strong as it’s been for over a century… unlike some silly unions with a kiss in public that don’t even last for a week.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    “robust debate” (ie arguments) happens all the time. I highly doubt either the ANC or DA have a monopoly on that. Unfortunately, in this case, it seems to have forced someone out the SABC that seemed to be getting somewhere (she was “less bad”, I wouldn’t go so far as “good”)

    You’ll get no arguments from me about the DAGang disaster. I’m happy that was aborted before it began. It was always a stupid idea.

  • Vusumuzi Sibiya

    OK Greg… so why is it that you can’t just take her word for it when she gives the reason for stepping down, as citing “exhaustion”? Is this the first time that anyone has ever decided to step down from a position because of being exhausted…? surely not!!

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    I agree it’s a slightly better reason than “I want to be with my family”, but it really does suggest the environment isn’t a pleasant one, that can grind a CEO down in 2 years.

  • Vusumuzi Sibiya

    CEO positions are never guaranteed to be pleasant… and being coach of a national team is even more unpleasant at times :)

  • Charley Lewis

    Overlooks the fact tho that the appointment of the CEO by the Minister is unconstitutional, and undermines the authority and independence of the Board…

  • John Mitchell

    A good read, thanks Duncan.

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