Ghosts still stalk the 27th floor of the SABC
‘No real people management’ Polokwane ‘polarised the board’
THE ghosts of the past still stalk the corridors of the 27th floor of the SABC building in Auckland Park.
That much is crystal clear when speaking to a former executive who lasted a decade at the public broadcaster, surviving numerous boardroom revolutions.
Robin Nicholson, a former chief financial officer at the SABC, has a vivid recollection of where all the Auckland Park skeletons are buried.
This week, following the dissolution of the board and resignations – including those of board chairman Ben Ngubane and his deputy Thami ka Plaatjie – Nicholson recalled what may have started it all.
“I think we should walk away from the lack of credibility of SABC news on certain issues which we saw during that time of Snuki Zikalala. This was the undertone of what Ben’s (Ngubane) board was trying to do,” he said.
“The appointment of Phil Molefe didn’t go through the whole board; it was basically Ben, Solly ( Mokwetle) and Phumelele (Nzimande) deciding that Phil will be head of news and presenting the board with a fait accompli. That started the first rebellion against Ben’s leadership.”
And that rebellion, Nicholson said, just kept on coming, with the board not trusting Ngubane “because he had deliberately tried to gerrymander a process that was critically important for restoring the editorial credibility of the SABC”.
Ngubane and Ka Plaatjie resigned, after weeks of renewed tension over the decision to remove SABC’s acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng from his position.
In February the board said it had resolved to release Motsoeneng of his responsibility as acting COO with immediate effect, which set off new inside power squabbles.
Nicholson, who was dumped in similar fashion 18 months ago after nine years serving as its chief financial officer and almost a year as its acting chief executive, said he wasn’t celebrating what had happened to the board, but neither was he surprised.
And while he didn’t wish to gloat, he was happy to point out where things went wrong and offer his opinion.
During his time with the SABC Nicholson went through five board heads – Vincent Maphai, Eddie Funde, Khanyi Mkhonza, Irene Charnley and Ngubane – and four chief executives: Peter Matlhare, Dali Mpofu, Gab Mampone and Solly Mokwetle. None finished their contracts.
“If you can last three years as SABC CEO you have done something quite remarkable,” he said. “With all these kinds of endemic problems it is almost impossible for anyone to fix that in 18 months.”
Nicholson, who admitted he was still angry at how he learnt he’d lost his job, claimed however he wasn’t bitter.
He said some of the unending problems that constantly engulfed the public broadcaster were the result of some board members being given projects and programmes to run that didn’t match their skill set, and said it was shocking that there was no real performance management and management of people at the SABC.
“That’s why you’ve got to deal with these special investigating unit reports (into procurement problems) because the legacy is in the organisation. It needs to be dealt with because it creates an underlying ulcer,” he said.
The SABC was a contested space at a lot of levels, because “it shapes perceptions, attitudes and the way we view ourselves in our country”.
However, the ANC Polokwane conference in 2007 did a lot of damage.
“It really did polarise the newsroom and organisation,” he said. “I think the SABC was making great progress before they appointed Snuki (Zikalala).
Ngubane was given a monstrous task, but after the Zikalala debacle his decision to appoint Molefe was “poor judgement on his part”.
“He knew the Snuki issue in the newsroom, so surely you take time to ensure that appointment would be the one that binds your board together. And yet it was the issue that divided them,” he said.
Who they named head of news and chief executive were two of the most important decisions for the board, while the CFO job was “quite frankly, a technical job.
“COO is a pretty cool job, but actually it’s a functionary job and it doesn’t really exist.”