The Fall of Zuma's Man at the SABC

By Dludlu, John | New African, February 2017 | Go to article overview

The Fall of Zuma's Man at the SABC


Dludlu, John, New African


Hlaudi Motsoeneng's rise to the top of South Africa's public broadcaster was a function of the Big Man's patronage. So what does his fall say about Zuma's grip on power?

By the time you read this, the career of Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the former chief operations officer (COO) of the SABC, South Africa's public broadcaster, will have begun unravelling. Three factors are behind his downfall: first, a high court ruled in December that he can't hold any position at the broadcaster until he's faced a proper disciplinary hearing; second, a parliamentary inquiry, which has just completed its work into the fitness of the SABC board to hold office, has heard testimonies about how Motsoeneng abused his power; and third, and most importantly, he's lost protection from his sponsor Jacob Zuma, South Africa's embattled president.

Although it's unclear how the two met, the story of Motsoeneng is inextricably linked to that of Zuma's presidency. One account has it that the pair formed a friendship when they were both in the wilderness: Zuma had been fired as deputy president of South Africa following the conviction of his financial adviser for corruption, and Motsoeneng, a mid-level SABC radio producer in the Free State, had lost his job.

They share many qualities: both teetotallers come from rural South Africa (Zuma comes from KwaZulu Natal, and Motsoeneng hails from Qwaqwa), and have little formal education, although now both have a string of other qualifications to their names. Zuma has a few honorary doctorates, and, the SABC's latest annual report lists the following under Motsoeneng although he has no high school certificate: Leadership Development Programme, Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS): NQF Level 7--Bachelor's Degree; National Certificate in Generic Management, (Prodigy): NQF Level 5--Higher Certificate; The Thompson Foundation Certificate in Radio Journalism; Analysis of Contemporary Social Issues (University of Witwatersrand).

And both are renowned for spectacular comebacks, and like mocking their detractors. They also have stark differences: Zuma publicly supports education and has a foundation that provides financial aid to the poor, whilst Motsoeneng ridicules it; unlike Zuma, who uses his minimal education as a strength against his enemies, Motsoeneng detests being considered ignorant and goes all out to prove his detractors wrong.

Motsoeneng, who's separated from his wife with whom he has children, returned to the public broadcaster as Zuma was taking over South Africa's presidency. Once he returned, his rise to the top became unstoppable. In just a few years, Motsoeneng would rise to become COO--a number three position at the broadcaster, on paper at least. In reality, though, he ran the show, overshadowing both the chief executive and finance director.

In the last seven years, the SABC has lost four full-time CEOs and more than 20 executives and two boards of directors, as Motsoeneng's career progressed. The common thread amongst those who left is that they all, at one point or another, crossed paths with Motsoeneng. Falling out with him isn't difficult at all; it's as easy as just questioning his instructions. Once you refuse to carry out his instruction, you're branded "not one of us", and you're suspended, and ultimately forced out. Millions of taxpayer's money have been spent on payouts to unwanted executives in this way.

His power was not limited to purging executives and junior employees; it also extended to board members, his bosses, in theory. Soon after the 2014 elections, a new communications minister was appointed, and she told an adviser that her first order of business would be to make permanent Motsoeneng's appointment to the position of COO. The reason: ubaba (Zuma) uyamthanda (likes him) ... we've to support him!

Armed with his powerful title and protection from Zuma, he then began his reign. He used his power by turning Africa's largest news-gathering operation into a state broadcaster serving the interests of Zuma. …

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