Friday, October 29, 2010

Torrent of outrage finally hits Ngubane

Kindly remain seated

Broadcaster on the brink thanks to SABC head's to-ing and fro-ing

Carol Paton, Financial Mail, Johannesburg, 28 October 2010

Ben Ngubane, the chairman of the SABC board, has a lot to answer for.

In the 10 months he has led the broadcaster, Ngubane has dug it deeper and deeper into crisis.
It began with his unilateral and illegal appointment of a new head of news in May, made without following prescribed legal processes, which set the rest of the board against him. The debacle over the news appointment resulted in the board unanimously declaring its loss of trust in Ngubane and passing a formal resolution to that effect.

But instead of resigning or being removed, as would be the normal response when a board loses confidence in the chair, Ngubane — owing to the peculiarities of how the SABC board is appointed — has remained. Instead, it has been board members — so far four out of 12 — who have felt stymied and have resigned.

In contrast, Ngubane has enjoyed political protection, since neither parliament's portfolio committee on communications nor communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda nor the presidency — all of whom played a role in appointing him — have been prepared to act against him. The portfolio committee has pretended that it lacks the authority to remove him. And, say board members, Nyanda told them at a meeting in June that its resolution declaring a lack of confidence in Ngubane should be "shredded". (Nyanda had not responded to questions from the FM at the time of publication.)

But last weekend, time abruptly ran out for Ngubane. The parliamentary portfolio committee is now preparing to motivate to the presidency for his removal.

The action that turned sentiment against him was another of Ngubane's trademark unilateral and illegal declarations, the audacity of which sent members of the committee and board members reeling.

In September, the board suspended group CE Solly Mokoetle for failing to present a turnaround plan for the corporation since his appointment in January. It was a decision which everyone on the board, except Ngubane, had supported. Chief financial officer Robin Nicholson was delegated the authority — for the next 30 days — to act in his place.

By the time Ngubane and the board appeared before parliament last week, the delegation of authority had expired, leaving the SABC without a legally appointed group CE. Ngubane pointed this out to the committee. However, after the meeting he promised Nicholson — who was seated beside him throughout the hearing — that the situation would be remedied as a matter of urgency and that immediately on returning to Johannesburg he would sign a new delegation of authority.

But that evening, though he was aware that he could easily sign the delegation, Ngubane told SABC news that if an acting group CE could not be appointed very soon he would have to move to bring Mokoetle back.

Without a legal CE and no prospect of one soon either, the business of the SABC looked poised to come to a halt. Apart from this being a reportable irregularity, the SABC's auditors warned the board on Friday, it also meant that the full range of transactions and processes that require the CE's authority could not be processed.

What followed was a torrent of outrage, unleashed towards Ngubane from board members, the portfolio committee and the president's office.

By the end of a weekend of furious e-mail correspondence and phone calls, Ngubane had flip-flopped once more. On Monday a board meeting was called at which Nicholson was given the unequivocal thumbs-up. Not only did the board express its full confidence in him "to lead the SABC at this time", it also put to bed the lingering doubts that had been publicly raised over his abilities and integrity.

Nyanda had been among his detractors. In September, after meeting the board, he said he was unhappy with Nicholson's appointment and urged the board to review it. Supporters of Mokoetle, lobbying against his suspension under the banner of the MK Military Veterans' Association, called Nicholson "corrupt" and SABC chief people officer Phumelele Ntombela-Nzimande described his financial management as "pathetic".

In a statement issued after the meeting, the board pointed out that while Nicholson had faced a disciplinary hearing last December arising from a report by the auditor-general, he had been found guilty of relatively minor infractions. In one case, he had sought to retain an existing service provider beyond the contractual obligations and in a second he had authorised payment for a service before a valid contract was in place. The board noted that the hearing found no dishonesty on the part of Nicholson and declared him "a man of integrity dedicated to the services of the SABC".

Ngubane wasn't the only one to come in for a roasting. Board members were also angry about the antics of senior management who they believed had played a role in influencing Ngubane's statements after the hearing in parliament. Individuals with a political agenda who meddled with governance processes would not be tolerated for much longer.

On the face of it, Ngubane's behaviour has in several instances been unfathomable. When asked about his motives, via SABC spokeman Kaiser Kganyago, Ngubane would only say that he had never said that he did not want Nicholson to act as group CE, only that it was a matter on which the board had not yet agreed. Now that it had been agreed, he was quite happy.

After his appointment as chair in January, Ngubane, who joined the ANC only lately and was a member of the IFP most of his life, was regarded as a good choice because of his independence. But on each major call it has been clear that his top objective has been to please his new party bosses. In doing so, he has been the cause of the broadcaster's new crisis.

Parliament has opened the nomination process to replace the four missing board members. Since the deputy chair of the board, Felleng Sekha, who had been regarded as a strong and capable support to Ngubane, is among those who have resigned, the portfolio committee will be looking for some strong individuals. But as the experiences of the board have shown, serving on this board is not an attractive proposition.

  • Nicholson finally gets thumbs-up as CEO
  • Four of the board's 12 members have left