Johannesburg - As Chris Maroleng was heading to the SABC’s headquarters in Joburg last Thursday to begin his new job as the chief operating officer (COO), he was a bit nervous.
He expected to be confronted by throngs of protesters opposed to his appointment blockading his way.
“I had developed an impression that I was going to meet serious resistance, that there might be a strike or a protest, because it (the SABC) is a politically charged environment,” he told The Star this week in a wide-ranging interview.
“The SABC that we have seen in the past has been like that, it was broken. I thought there would be a protest,” he said.
Maroleng’s apprehension, while perhaps a bit inflated, captures the increasingly toxic and volatile environment that the SABC has become.
In the days following Maroleng’s appointment, Communications Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane was unrelenting in fuelling the political fire at the public broadcaster, making utterances suggesting an objection to the appointment of the former MTN group executive of corporate affairs.
If she was not questioning Maroleng’s vetting, she was denying that she was consulted.
This appeared to give credence to the rumours swirling around that Maroleng was a Zimbabwean and did not have South African citizenship.
There was also the rumour of an alleged incident of sexual harassment at MTN, all of which the former African editor at eNCA describes as shocking.
“It’s unfortunate. Let me be honest with you, I didn’t expect that it would be so disparaging and brutal, an attempt to smear my character and reputation,” said the 41-year-old father-of-three.
The innuendo about his sexual conduct and citizenship aside, Kubayi-Ngubane’s persistence in questioning Maroleng’s appointment reignited simmering tension between herself and the SABC board.
Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/ANA
Those in the know in Auckland Park’s majestic heights say Kubayi-Ngubane had merely picked up the political baton from her predecessor, Ayanda Dlodlo, which was passed on to the latter by Faith Muthambi.
Hlaudi Motsoeneng might be gone at the SABC but he still seems omnipresent in Maroleng’s office.
“In any position, the shadow of the predecessor can loom large. But what we have to remember in the largeness of this shadow is that it is exactly that, just a shadow,” said Maroleng.
“The physical shadow is not necessarily here. As a result, this shadow cannot be so large and preoccupy my mind.”
Upon announcing Maroleng’s appointment, the SABC board cited his business skills as among the reasons for his selection.
“Mr Maroleng has demonstrated considerable management and financial acumen and he is familiar with the cutting-edge Fourth Industrial Revolution issues the SABC needs to embrace going forward.
“He understands South Africa’s legislative and regulatory environment, and his knowledge of broadcasting on the continent is invaluable as the SABC develops its coverage of, and in, Africa,” the SABC said on Tuesday.
Moments before the interview with Maroleng began, a man strode into Maroleng’s plush, spacious office on the 27th floor spotting an SABC branded work-suit top emblazoned with the letters “security services”.
In his trail were five men, who, after a short briefing session, briskly walked into Maroleng’s office and knuckled down to work.
“These guys form part of the security team at the SABC. In fact, what they were doing is to ensure that the environment that I work in is free from interception, free from electronic interference, and so on,” explained Maroleng.
Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/ANA
After Motsoeneng was ejected from the SABC, there had been talk among the board members of the importance of ridding the SABC of the vestiges of Motsoeneng and his political handlers, if the corporation was to start on a clean slate.
Maroleng will need to be “as constant as the northern star” to ward off being swayed by politicians.
“It’s not for me to ensure that. The board has effectively mandated me to depoliticise the SABC and to ensure its independence. This is the mandate I have received, and they have themselves demonstrated how committed they are to having an independent SABC,” he said.
“They said to me they don’t want an SABC where political interference characterises this organisation.”
But there’s a more critical mandate he has been given - fix the SABC and turn around its ailing, flailing fortunes. Years of upheavals at the SABC worsened under Motsoeneng’s disastrous tenure, with massive financial losses and declining revenue recorded, while the debt increased.
Financial stability is among “the five key areas” that Maroleng has identified, as part of his first 100 days in office.
“This talks about stopping the loss of revenue and ensuring that we manage our cash flow very well.
“Our budget processes need to be well managed to ensure that we work as close to zero (loss) base as possible.
“(Also critical) is how we invest in the business, meaning understanding our expected return so that we don’t make mistakes, and investing in things that do not return value.”
In her damning “When Governance and Ethics Fail” report into the SABC, former public protector Thuli Madonsela flagged wasteful and fruitless expenditure as among the problems bedevilling the corporation.
“The public protector’s report is very clear, and these governance failures need for us to take them seriously” Maroleng said.
Motsoeneng’s reign will also be remembered for the disastrous radio and TV music quota system, which resulted in advertising revenue diminishing rapidly. This is something that Maroleng has set his sights on fixing in the immediate term.
“Our operating model talks about understanding our audiences, that is ensuring that our clients have the right products and the right services.
“If we have the right products and services, the income we derive as revenue should allow us ultimately to build a financially viable business,” he said, emphasising the importance of aligning products and services to audiences, and tailoring them in a way that appeals to audiences.
Maroleng is also excited about the board’s stance that editorial independence is non-negotiable.
Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/ANA
“The board has really begun to set up a very robust editorial process which talks about how we protect the freedom of expression and the right of expression of my colleagues, (who are) journalists.
“(We are) building a newsroom that is free from intimidation, political interference and all manner of things that have made it difficult for my colleagues in newsrooms to deliver relevant, accurate and balanced news.”
If Maroleng’s word is anything to go by, the employees at the SABC might look forward to a new lease of life.
“The most important asset of any business is its people, and many people have worked hard to keep the SABC afloat. If we mistreat our people, then we have nothing. We need to understand the employee-value proposition.”
But workers will have to adapt to the changing world of media broadcasting.
“We need to ask the right questions. Do we have the right people to take the SABC forward in the business of the future? Do they have skills, (including) digital skills and so on?
“We want to get to a place where we retain the great skills that we have in the business of today, but for the business of tomorrow. We also want to ensure that we attract the right skills that will take us to that digital future. Linked to people is technical capability to ensuring that we have the capacity to broadcast, (have) the right equipment, the right delivery systems.”
Maroleng is aware that he might have to take a hardline stance if he is to instil a good work ethic among the SABC employees.
“One of the key aspects is the ability to influence and to bring people along.
“It’s not necessarily the ability to rule with an iron fist that is wrapped in velvet, but the capability to explain to my colleagues that the benefits for us taking the tough decisions now is that (while) they may be suffering the pain now, they will result in us gaining in future.
“What we need is a process of disruption, where the SABC begins to disrupt itself because if we wait for others to disrupt us, it can ultimately kill our business,” he said.
If Maroleng’s disposition as an astute technocrat is anything to go by, then the board seems to have found the right man to chart the SABC into a new path as a stable and viable “broadcaster of choice”.
But as the saying goes, only time will tell.