Ghosts still stalk the 27th floor of the SABC

‘No real peo­ple man­age­ment’ Polok­wane ‘po­larised the board’

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - THABISO THAKALI

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.”

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