360 05-12-2012 SABC acting chief officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng during the media briefing after the management decided to drop the Metro FM talk show host by Sakina Kamwendo. Picture: Tiro Ramatlhatse

President Zuma had to make sure that the SABC boss does not prove to be his ultimate downfall, says Jovial Rantao.

Johannesburg - President Jacob Zuma has given the biggest and clearest indication that the scandal around the appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng to the powerful position of chief operating officer of the SABC has him seriously worried.

Out of the blue, Zuma seven days ago issued a statement, distancing himself from the brouhaha surrounding the appointment of Hlaudi, an extremely powerful man at the public broadcaster.

A man who has, at best, shown that he has more power than the chief executive officer and, indeed, some cabinet minister. This is a man who, at best, has demonstrated, over the years, that he has powerful political connections, and that his connections go right to the top.

Zuma’s move to distance himself from Motsoeneng was a forced move. It came after the ANC and its alliance partners – the president’s political base – came out strongly, in an unprecedented move, against the appointment of a man who many had thought was at the SABC with the blessing of the governing tripartite alliance. There was a general acceptance Motsoeneng’s job at the SABC was to protect the interest of the ANC. This he could do, for instance, by making sure that the news content broadcast by the SABC in its extremely powerful multimedia platforms was 70 percent positive – that is, giving a positive slant to news and creating an impression that the ANC government was delivering on its election promises.

So Zuma could not keep quiet in the face of a tsunami-like political storm that was developing inside his own party. Hence the statement issued last week.

The developments show that the South African public was wrong in its belief that Motsoeneng and all he did at the SABC had the blessings of Luthuli House. So a continued impression that he was alienated from the ANC but remained close to Zuma would have been politically damaging to a president who is months away from becoming a lame duck head of party and state.

Zuma had to act because, in the world of political opportunism, this controversy or a semblance of a division between him and the party on Motsoeneng and his role, could prove to be a devastating turning point. It could prove to be a golden chance that his detractors had been praying for. It could just be a chance for them to pounce and shorten his last term.

So Zuma’s calculated move to issue an unprovoked public statement was meant to deal with the impression created – real or imagined – that he, his party and the alliance partners were not at one on this issue.

Zuma had to move quickly and make sure that Motsoeneng, who now has to fight to keep his job at the SABC, does not prove to be his ultimate downfall – the man who brought down the president.

Word from the ANC and some in the Presidency, is that people around the president – and there are a lot of them – have been deeply worried about the link, real or imagined, between Motsoeneng and the president.

People speak of the decisions and actions which were not sanctioned by the ANC but are carried out by Motsoeneng.

This would explain statements by the ANC, the SA Communist Party and Cosatu – who all expressed concern about many things – that Motsoeneng was appointed without proper processes being followed.

Some privately expressed their disbelief at the arrogance by the SABC and the new Communications Minister Faith Muthambi to appoint Motsoeneng in the face of damning findings by the Public Protector.

Some senior ANC members were also concerned, correctly so, that the SABC board, with the support of the minister, violated the constitution by getting a law firm to investigate the finding of a chapter nine institution.

Truth is that there is no smoke without fire.

Zuma has been linked to so many people. His name has been dropped in a multiple of conversations. Why did he feel the need to respond to this one?

Why did he feel the need distance himself from Motsoeneng?

The answer, for me, is very simple. And it is that Zuma wants to complete his last tenure as president. He fears a recall.

Naturally, he fears his legacy being spoilt by the powerful man at Auckland Park.

He fears that the beautiful and compelling narrative of an uneducated shepherd who went on to become president of a powerful nation in Africa and the world will not have a desired good ending.

And he had to act.

* Jovial Rantao is editor of the Sunday Independent.

Sunday Independent