SABC crisis results in vote of no confidence

Bitter infighting among the board and senior executives of the SABC has erupted into a full-scale conflict amid claims in parliament this week of misconduct and broken trust.

The crisis has sparked concern among politicians and SABC executives about the public broadcaster's strategic plans, including its preparedness for digital migration, coverage of the 2009 elections and the 2010 World Cup.

The SABC - already under fire for being too cosy with the government - was plunged deeper into controversy when ANC MPs passed a motion of no confidence in the board during a sitting of the national assembly's communications committee.

This followed allegations of misconduct by certain board members and concerns that the board as a whole was not exercising its fiduciary duties.

The board, under new chairperson Khanyi Mkhonza, was criticised for writing a memorandum that had been leaked to the media, and then for failing to act against two board members who granted interviews anonymously on the subject.

Shocked MPs witnessed Dali Mpofu, the SABC group chief executive, shaking his head, when Mkhonza claimed that the controversial memorandum had been handed to him.

Four weeks after it was leaked and made available over the Internet, Mpofu claims he has still not been given a copy of the memorandum.

Some board members were apparently taken aback by Mpofu's claim - being under the impression it had been sent to him. This suggested that the board itself was divided and fuelled speculation that Mkhonza and Christine Qunta, the deputy chairperson, were acting together, but in the name of the board.

Mpofu suggested the memo was leaked on instruction from a cabinet minister.

"I have received various pieces of information and some of them even point to executive interference that somebody from high up gave instruction that the CEO must be removed," he said.

The SABC board members were controversially appointed by President Thabo Mbeki in December. Sipho Sithole, the SABC's head of risk and strategy, told the committee that the leaked document made it extremely difficult for them to trust the board.

"After the second meeting with us, they leaked company information, and this makes it very uncomfortable for me because I do not know whether sensitive information on strategy is going to be divulged to our competitors," he told the committee.

Mkhonza was grilled over the board's decision to turn down a request from the SABC executive for a meeting to discuss the document. The board's action against Mpofu was described by committee members as a witchhunt.

Mkhonza said she had written the memorandum but did not know who had leaked it. But Ramani Naidoo, the SABC company secretary, resigned in November after being accused of leaking documents to the media.

Mkhonza did not respond to calls for comment on Saturday.

Phumelele Ntombela-Nzimande, an SABC executive, told the committee that meetings had been sought with the board even before the memorandum was leaked.

"We wanted to hear their expectations, but that never happened. After the memorandum was leaked, we wrote to the chair asking for a meeting. The chair said there was no crisis and said there was no need for a meeting."

Mkhonza's letter said the board wanted to meet the 18 senior executives individually and would then decide about a full meeting.

Eric Kholwane, an ANC MP, said there were serious problems between the board and the management of the SABC.

"We are convinced that this board is not in a position to execute its fiduciary duties and responsibilities and we therefore, accordingly, want to pass a vote of no confidence in this board."

Jane Duncan, the executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, said the vote of no confidence was a signal to Mbeki of unhappiness within the ANC about the board.

Duncan said those individuals who were controversially appointed should consider stepping down.

"The danger is that political pressure may result in Mbeki's board being replaced by a Jacob Zuma board. …It would be better for a neutral body, like a court, to review the original appointment of the board."

William Bird, the head of the Media Monitoring Project, said the conflict between Mpofu and the board was significant because previous boards and CEOs understood what was expected of each other.

"It is deeply disappointing but if anything positive it could be a clear demarcation of the roles of the board and the SABC executive." he said.