Monday, August 23, 2010

Now SABC has to face the music


Ben Ngubane, the SABC board chairperson, is girding his loins for next week's showdown in Parliament, convinced that members of the corporation's board are trying to have him sacked.

"It's going to be messy and I don't really have the appetite for it," Ngubane said this week. "But I will certainly defend myself if I have to."

Also in the firing line is Solly Mokoetle, the SABC group chief executive, who reportedly stormed out of a meeting this week after the board had asked him why he should not be suspended for dereliction of duty. He is accused of failing to draft a turnaround strategy for the SABC.

The Mail & Guardian has seen exchanges among board members and between Ngubane and Parliament, which highlight the crisis at the top echelons of the corporation.

On Tuesday Ngubane, Mokoetle and the other board members will appear before Parliament's communications committee to report on the board's "functionality", the SABC's turnaround plan and the filling of the job of head of news, controversially occupied by Phil Molefe.

In his submission to Parliament, Ngubane complains of "vitriol" in emails from, and conversations with, the board.

He cites a recent email sent by media consultant David Niddrie to the rest of the board on the presentation to Parliament, saying that it exemplified the "acrimonious and confrontational environment in the board".

"These are the hallmarks of a dysfunctional board," Ngubane says.

Niddrie says it would be inappropriate for Ngubane to prepare and make the presentation "because an irrevocable breakdown of trust exists between the chairperson and the other 11 non-executive directors and because the functionality of the board is a subject on which the committee wishes us to make an input".

'Materially conflicted'
Niddrie says that Ngubane "may, of course, wish to exercise his right to make a separate submission. He may not, however, do so on behalf of the corporation nor, in my view, may he make use of SABC resources to do so." In particular, Niddrie says, because Ngubane and Mokoetle are "materially conflicted" about filling the post of head of news and current affairs, they cannot be relied on to prepare and submit an accurate report on this.

He says Mokoetle should play no role in the parliamentary submission because he has been placed on terms by the board for his apparent dereliction in regard to the turnaround strategy and is guilty of "improper actions with respect to the news appointment process and other governance matters".

The board members handed in to Parliament this week their submission, which included Ngubane's alleged flouting of corporate governance and the complaints against Mokoetle.

The submission says Mokoetle missed a March deadline to deliver a turnaround strategy for board approval.

The board was angered by his backing for Ngubane's unilateral appointment of Molefe as head of news, which members say was irregular.

In another startling disclosure board members told the Mail & Guardian that the acrimonious tone was set by an incident in May during which Ngubane "screamed at" ANC stalwart Barbara Masekela and board member Pippa Green in the Auckland Park car park after a board meeting. The flashoint appears to have been Ngubane's drive to appoint Molefe as head of news.

This week Ngubane denied screaming at them. He said he had simply expressed his frustration because they had abstained from scoring shortlisted candidates for the head of news job after interviews.

He also denied saying to Masekele and Green that President Jacob Zuma wanted Molefe for the post, as some board members allege.

"That would be completely foolish if I did say such a thing," Ngubane said. "You can't talk about the head of state like that."

Masekela and Green would not comment.

"I'm not in a position to comment on my resignation or anything else," Masekela said this week.

Board members said she had been ill recently and had handed in her resignation last week because she found the tension unbearable.

Ngubane, a former Inkatha Freedom Party stalwart, was appointed board chairperson by Zuma. This week he confirmed that he was now a member of the ANC, as some board members had claimed.

But he denied that his controversial appointment of Molefe was political. He said board infighting had created "exceptional circumstances", which gave him the right to act.

The breakdown of relations on the board is also highlighted in an internal memorandum written by Mok oetle to Ngubane on August 3 this year, which was leaked to the Mail & Guardian.

Mokoetle complained that he had been overwhelmed by 524 emails from the board between January and July this year, each taking him about an hour to answer. Although there was usually a limited number of board meetings each year, he said he had been called on to attend at least 55 meetings with board members during this period.

Mokoetle alleges in his memo that some board members, whom he did not name, were driving an "agenda of turning the SABC into an employment agency for themselves and their cohorts".

He claims that he and officials in his turnaround planning unit were "bombarded with names" that the board recommended for employment.

On investigation, he said, some turned out to be relatives of board members or their friends.

Board members had interfered with his job by seeking to take over executive functions, including a management role in developing the turnaround strategy.

"I have not been given a reasonable chance by board members to work with my management team to develop the long-term turnaround strategy, which we all agree is a requirement to ensure the sustainability of taking the SABC out of the financial crisis it is facing, including its ability to pay back debt and fulfil the government guarantee requirements going forward."

One board member, who asked not to be named, described the allegations as "absurd".

The SABC's losses for the period April 1 2009 to March 31 this year have been halved, from R980-million to R485-million, insiders told the Mail & Guardian this week.

These figures will be presented at the end of September after the SABC's annual general meeting.

But, according to the insiders, the flattering figures were achieved simply by "not spending", especially on programming.

Revenues were flat, they said. Losses had been reduced only because of extreme cost-cutting measures.

The previous board was dissolved in June last year, after it was blamed for not averting the financial crisis at the broadcaster.

An interim board, led by businesswoman Irene Charnley, came to the rescue and arranged a financial bailout in the form of a government guarantee of R1,47-billion.

However, this came with strict conditions that still have to be met.

According to the national treasury, a "draw-down" of R1-billion was made available immediately to settle urgent outstanding financial obligations. But the remaining R473-million is still subject to the broadcaster presenting clear revenue targets and cost-cutting measures, to enable effective oversight and monitoring.

The new board, which took over in January, with Ngubane at its helm, will account to Parliament next week for the delays in drafting a turnaround plan.

The M&G also understands that the board has hired three independent financial advisers to investigate audit, risk and finance for the public broadcaster.