As early as 2005, there were already questions about Communications Minister Faith Muthambi's integrity, writes Andrew Donaldson.
Among those who welcomed Faith Muthambi’s appointment as communications minister in May 2014 was the DA’s Marian Shinn, the party’s spokesman for telecommunications and postal services.
Shinn had been effusive about Muthambi’s knowledge of information and communications technology. “I found her to be a person of integrity,” she said. “She has a sharp legal mind and is disinclined to take explanations and glossy presentations at face value. She will do well as Minister of Telecommunications and I wish her well.”
The Muthambi who this week emerged at the parliamentary inquiry into the SABC’s affairs was a wholly different character. To be fair to Shinn, at the time of her appointment as President Jacob Zuma’s propaganda minister, it was reported Muthambi was a “relatively unknown” entity.
What was known, however, wasn’t particularly encouraging. In 2005, when she was municipal manager at Makhado in Limpopo, Muthambi was arrested for allegedly selling a luxury car belonging to the council. Charges of fraud were dropped after two appearances in the local district court.
She later came under scrutiny following an inquiry into tender fraud and charges of nepotism. Muthambi had allegedly overpaid a construction company said to be owned by a boyfriend for a road construction project it failed to execute, and had appointed a cousin as a municipal librarian without following due process.
In 2008, she was suspended with full pay during which time she also claimed a performance bonus of more than R80000. She successfully challenged her suspension, returned to work – but then resigned when it was announced she had been deployed to Parliament, where she was inaugurated as a new MP in May 2009.
She’d always denied any wrongdoing in Limpopo. It was a dry run, you could argue, for the head-in-the-sand, deny-everything turn she reprised on Wednesday during her stint before the inquiry into the SABC board’s fitness to hold office.
It was a staggering display of intransigence. Anyone expecting her to cop a mea culpa to charges that she had interfered with the SABC board and the appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng, or even acknowledge she had pitched up at board meetings unannounced, let alone influenced editorial policy to the extent a journalist was fired for having the temerity to ask her questions about the delayed digital migration process, was to be sorely disappointed.
Still, she didn’t have it easy. When the grilling from committee members grew heated – and the DA’s Phumzile van Damme was particularly aggressive – Muthambi appealed to chairman Vincent Smith to “protect me here”.
There was no chance of that. As commentators have noted, this inquiry was a far cry from the customarily tame parliamentary hearings, like the one into the Nkandla security upgrades. Muthambi, coincidentally, had been part of that supine display.
It would seem she may now also face charges she misled the committee. According to ANC MP Juli Kilian, there are concerns the minutes of SABC board meetings handed over to members have been tampered with.
What was missing from their copies, it’s been claimed, was a section that concerned Muthambi’s reasons for being present at the SABC building the night Motsoeneng’s appointment as COO was made permanent, and her motivation for wanting to expedite the process. Van Damme later said, if this was the case, it was perjury and criminal charges should be laid.
The inquiry resumes next month. MPs have much to mull over in the interim. Witnesses have painted a bleak picture of political interference, censorship and SABC funds being used to bolster ANN7, the Gupta TV channel.
But perhaps it should consider summonsing Motsoeneng to explain his vision of what exactly a national broadcaster should be. Here at the Mahogany Ridge, we suspect he hasn’t a clue. But we could be wrong.
There have been those who have suggested that Motsoeneng is a Stalinist, but this is perhaps unfair to Stalin. The more fitting role model is perhaps Enver Hoxha, an equally delusional dictator. Certainly, if the SABC was a failed state it would be the wasteland that was Hoxha’s Albania.
As it is, there is a case of cultural “ethnic cleansing” that Motsoeneng must answer to, and that is his decision to enforce Radio Lotus to adhere to his 90percent local music content and abandon its Indian and Bollywood playlists.
* Andrew Donaldson’s A Famous Grouse column appears in the Weekend Argus every Saturday.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.