617 08/01/2013Chief Operations Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng on an interview with The Star reporter at his office in Radio Park, Auckland Park, Johannesburg.Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

President Zuma can help shut up his critics by appointing a competent person to run the public broadcaster, says Eusebius McKaiser.

Johannesburg - Even if President Jacob Zuma, hypothetically speaking, desired only good news, Hlaudi Motsoeneng remains bad news. Motsoeneng is bad news for Zuma, for the ANC and, most importantly, for SA Inc, the solitary shareholder of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Given the reality of blurred party-state lines in our country at times, it is worth explaining why Motsoeneng is not the right person for the job, even in a scenario where some members of the governing party may wish to be reported on favourably.

The best political strategy to shut up your detractors is to either run public institutions well, or appoint the right people to run them well. This is as true of, say, Eskom and Transnet as it is of the SABC.

Nothing will shut up critics of Zuma and the ANC more than an SABC that is superior in broadcasting output, and operational efficiency, to its commercial alternatives. Right now that is not the case.

The woes of the SABC range from declining viewership and trust in its news production, to appallingly uncreative re-runs of our childhood programmes as a substitute for better content generation. And this is not to mention the managerial, including financial, inefficiencies that have become systemic.

It is a monument to public institution failure, the kind of example right-wing commentators and economists can reliably cite as reason the state should become smaller, and less involved in public institutions.

The facts behind these claims are now well documented, both by civil society organisations and, crucially, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela in her damning report on Motsoeneng.

We cannot willy-nilly decide when we want to accept the work of the public protector, and when we want to ignore her. Unless and until a particular report from the public protector is set aside through a legal challenge, its contents must be accepted as legitimate. Anything less than accepting her authority, in the absence of legal refutation of her findings, amounts to behaving unconstitutionally, insofar as ignoring her amounts to ignoring chapter 9 of the constitution from which her authority is derived.

The public protector, lest we forget, directly implicated Motsoeneng in fraud – he misrepresented his qualifications – and improper conduct and maladministration – including a 63 percent salary hike over a 12-month period. This is quite apart from the more visible failures, poor content and bizarre beliefs about sunshine journalism and the licensing of journalists. So, objectively he is not fit to run the SABC.

But here’s the interesting thing: Motsoeneng defenders – there are a few, yes – never once cite “competent” as a reason for why he should stay on. I challenge any SABC board member who confirmed his appointment as chief operating officer to publicly give a speech in which they state in granular detail his key performance indicators (KPIs) as chief operating officer, then chronicle the evidence of, not just KPIs being met, but being met so brilliantly even a 63 percent salary hike over a 12-month period becomes self-evidently justified.

If any of them succeeds, then I will, as punishment for getting the facts wrong, pay for Motsoeneng to do a course in management.

But I suspect my little bit of disposable income is safe, since the board has never defended their decision on the basis of him being competent. They have simply asserted their power to confirm his appointment.

But the SABC board must be careful. Ethically and legally, they have to use their power rationally. And giving reasons for how they act, reasons that justify how their power was exercised, is compulsory.

If they cannot, then their decisions can be taken on review. And if they do not have their factual and legal arguments right, they will be exposed to have made a decision about Motsoeneng that was never based on a sober assessment of his competency for the job.

That would not surprise me. The board has a history of playing politics at the expense of the public, with few exceptions among some of the board members.

But, overall, while particular board members come and go, institutionally, the SABC board itself is not interested in good journalism. They are interested in politics. So we really have little hope that the SABC will be turned around soon.

The best chance of this mess being sorted out is for the ANC, as a party, to for once blur the party-state line for the sake of the public. If enough senior members of the alliance push back against the ANC cadres deployed to the state, then pressure can be exerted to get rid of Motsoeneng. I suspect this is imminent, in fact.

Zuma denies – isn’t he good at denying? – any involvement. That’s his favourite line.

But the whispers from good sources tell a different story; a story of Zuma risking losing some of his authority if the ANC pushes back against his reported protection of Motsoeneng. It would be a huge, and silly, tactical error for the president to make. It really isn’t worth losing support in your party, as a leader with a struggling brand, to protect someone who is incompetent in the person of Motsoeneng. Doesn’t Zuma have advisers left who can think tactically?

Here’s free advice, Mr President: an SABC that doesn’t fear showing EFF politicians dissing you, for example, is an SABC that is good for you. You want an SABC that critiques your power and shows off your government’s achievements. No, really, that is what you want in order to kill perceptions that you have a thin skin. The best way, in turn, to achieve this outcome is to make it clear to the communications minister and the board that you, like the public, regret the poor leadership at the SABC.

Put it that vaguely. They have the gift of interpretation, and will feel empowered to do the right thing. Sharp.

* Eusebius McKaiser hosts ‘Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser’ on Power 98.7 weekdays 9am till noon.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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