The SABC under corporate affairs boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng is an organisation “driven by fear and intimidation” as it becomes increasingly securitised and conducts an escalating purge of skills and integrity, even roping in the State Security Agency (SSA) to help investigate staff.
This is according to 18 former senior staffers and current insiders City Press interviewed – or studied the labour cases of – over the past month.
None wished to be named as their cases were still ongoing and they feared victimisation.
The suspension of experienced SABC staffers’ contracts is escalating and almost always involves payouts.
Most of these staff members are punished for questioning irregular procedures or leaking information to the press.
As part of our investigation, City Press can reveal that in the last two years, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) has heard 190 cases brought by SABC staff.
According to City Press’ sister newspaper, Rapport, 109 of those were in the past nine months.
“Checks and balances have been thrown out the window,” said numerous sources close to the broadcaster’s procurement and finance divisions, while the Auditor-General last week revealed R798.2 million in irregular and wasteful expenditure at the SABC.
The SABC did not respond to questions sent on Thursday.
State spies on the 28th floor
Insubordination is one of the most common charges laid against “uncooperative” staff by the SABC, but “sharing information with third parties” has been steadily rising in the past year.
So seriously does Motsoeneng take leaks that he allegedly brought in the SSA to investigate them since at least September last year.
In one matter, several senior staff members were suspended for allegedly revealing the extent of the SABC’s poor financials.
A number of senior sources, including a member of the security cluster, said staff arrived for individual meetings at a boardroom on the 28th floor, convened by SABC human resources.
A man who introduced himself as Isaac from the SSA took charge of proceedings.
“He said he had been approached by Motsoeneng to assist the SABC,” said one. Later, he was allegedly joined by a woman, also from the SSA.
“This is illegal in terms of the National Strategic Intelligence Act, even for a national key point. It’s an internal staff matter, not one of national security,” said one of the sources after consulting lawyers.
Gareth Newham of the Institute for Security Studies agreed, saying: “The Ministerial Review Commission on Intelligence undertaken in 2008 warned ... that capacity of the SSA was open to abuse for political reasons or motives that have nothing to do with national security.
“The inspector-general of intelligence should urgently and thoroughly investigate any allegations of wrongdoing.”
SSA spokesperson Brian Dube responded, saying: “In terms of the National Strategic Intelligence Act, the SSA is mandated to help various organs of state with requests for security-related matters. We don’t discuss the details of the requests we receive and the details of the work we do.”
Several senior SABC sources raised the steadily increasing securitisation of the national broadcaster.
“People will say we can’t have this conversation here, the room is probably bugged by the 27th floor.” Motsoeneng’s office is on the 27th floor.
Another insider told City Press two months ago: “I was alarmed when I got there and all these new security cameras had been installed. You notice it from the parking garage.”
Asked last week about the heavy security outside Motsoeneng’s office and allegations of new cameras in the building, SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said: “Please note that the SABC is not at liberty to discuss its security measures with you. You would appreciate that the SABC is a national key point area.”
City Press’ investigation has also revealed a tightening of personnel regulations cited in SABC workers’ contracts.
There was an outcry among staff as early as 2014 when SABC contracts began stipulating it had the right to intercept staff communications, even if they were private.
In the latest amendments, staff must sign a clause that they are not allowed, without permission, to talk to the media for two years after they resign.
The president of the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers’ Union (Bemawu), Hannes du Buisson, is threatening legal action regarding the clause.
This week he told the SABC in a letter that the clause infringes on staff members’ right to freedom of expression, as well as the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.
“Not only is this a total disregard for employee rights, but it is setting a trap for employees to change policy without following process and simply slip that into the system,” he wrote.
Jimi Matthews goes to the CCMA
City Press has learnt that former SABC news head and acting CEO Jimi Matthews has filed a constructive dismissal case against the SABC at the CCMA because it had become unbearable and untenable to work under Motsoeneng.
Matthews’ resignation made waves as he turned on Motsoeneng after being in his closest circle.
It’s like having got out of an abusive relationship and you can’t figure out why you stayed in it.
Former SABC news head and acting CEO Jimi Matthews
Speaking from Ghana, where he is “taking a break for the first time in God knows how many years” and “reconnecting with my creativity”, Matthews confirmed he had pursued a case.
However, he said the matter was “moot” because he would not be in the country for the hearing and assumed it would be struck from the roll.
He said that he was reflecting on the importance of the public broadcaster and how to make a positive contribution to its future. He described the SABC as “a dark experience”.
“It’s like having got out of an abusive relationship and you can’t figure out why you stayed in it.”
The handbook and internal audit
“If you aren’t willing to rubber-stamp something that hasn’t followed procedure; if you insist something needs board approval; when you point out contracts are irregular, or a purchase order is for more than the value of the service provided ... you eventually get a letter inviting you to defend yourself against insubordination charges and you are suspended pending an investigation,” said a top former staffer, referring to those staff members who defy decisions by Motsoeneng or his trusted senior executives, notably acting CEO James Aguma.
Sources talk about these fear and intimidation tactics as “the handbook”. “It’s scripted,” said another staffer. “This is how to force someone out.”
“They place you on suspension and then hope you will jump,” said another, who added the rough handling throughout the suspension, disciplinary or CCMA process is also aimed at making sure you don’t want to return.
Several sources tell of a sinister division – internal audit – run by James Mathebula, with forensic audit reporting to them, which is used to find dirt on staffers whom Motsoeneng and his managers want out.
“They will get an instruction to investigate someone and then they will find whatever they can: governance matters, mistakes in controls, any incorrect minor process,” said one source.
“They will look for forms or reports that have not been submitted, anything. If they still can’t find anything, they will work with the chief security officer and monitor work attendance.”
An example of this, our investigation has revealed, is of a number of SABC senior procurement officials who were suspended in November last year in a bid to protect a number of suspect deals.
At the time City Press reported on the suspension of executive head of procurement Madoda Shushu and general managers in procurement, Irene Marutla and Tumiso Radebe, who were allegedly punished for, among other deals, questioning the controversial R42.3 million multi-purpose studio purchased by SABC to broadcast the Rugby World Cup and said to be valued at R8 million.
However allegations made by Radebe before the CCMA a month ago add fuel to the fire and exemplify numerous similar cases City Press has looked into.
Before he joined the SABC, Aguma had a five-year stint at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC).
In Radebe’s testimony he details how Aguma allegedly instructed him to draw up a R10 million purchase order for a R8.25 million contract with PWC to assist with the SABC’s clean audit project.
SABC sources insist that no tender and no proper procurement process was followed for the PWC deal.
The CCMA heard the matter in September this year and senior commissioner Timothy Boyce, in his arbitration award, wrote: “The evidence before me shows that there is no substance to any of the allegations of misconduct” by Radebe. He ruled that Aguma’s instruction was “unlawful” and called Radebe’s actions “laudable and courageous”.
Asked to respond, the auditing firm’s head of media relations Sanchia Temkin said, “Unfortunately PWC is unable to comment on this matter as we are bound by the rules of our profession relating to client confidentiality.”
Radebe also argued that he had repeatedly made submissions to the SABC Bid Adjudication Committee (BAC) to terminate the contract of a cleaning company because its tax certificate was “fraudulent”.
He told the CCMA that the BAC had not passed any resolution on the matter.
The BAC is headed up by Sully Motsweni who is close to Hlaudi Motsoeneng and implicated along with him in a damning Public Protector report.
The CCMA ordered the SABC to allow Radebe back to work and ordered it to pay him R170 571.38 on top of the R852 856.90 leave pay he had received while being suspended for 10 months.
An SABC insider said conciliation at the CCMA can take months, because SABC representatives often come to conciliation hearings with no mandate to settle.
The insider said that some cases have had up to eight dates set down and some arbitration cases take more than a year.
The CCMA has a conciliation/arbitration process to shorten the legal dispute, where both processes can take place on the same day.
“The SABC, without exception, object to every conciliation/arbitration process,” said another insider. “They are also never ready at the first sitting, they always raise an issue of pre-arbitration, or pretend to settle, which usually results in postponement.”
SABC matters sit for between three and 12 days on average, say insiders, and others for up to 20 days. Labour law experts say the CCMA usually sets out two days to hear a case and if it is not completed a further two days will be set down.
Countless sources spoke of experiencing depression during the process. “All the while you are sitting at home. Your reputation is tarnished. Sometimes 10 or 11 months later they will drop the charges or the CCMA will rule for you. Then the real hell starts. You go back to work,” said one.
Victimisation and payouts
“When you return you are told in no uncertain terms you are not welcome, tomorrow is your last day, take a payout on your contract or we’ll fire you.
"People are so scared that they take the money,” said Du Buisson of the many cases he has handled.
He points to SABC staffer Andre Weber, who worked in labour relations at the SABC during apartheid.
Insiders refer to Weber as the chosen head of staff purges, at the behest of Motsoeneng and human resources boss Mohlolo Lephaka, especially of those returning to work after winning at the CCMA.
“Bemawu has lodged a whole lot of complaints against [Weber],” says Du Buisson.
“He’s directly involved in most of the purges, he does the negotiations – if you can call them that...
“He retired and then, the next day, he walked in under a new contract with a job created specially for him. He’s now specialist: integrated employee relations.”
Explosive parliamentary hearing
“If it happens,” is what most witnesses City Press contacted said about next week’s parliamentary inquiry into the fitness of the SABC board to hold office.
Many believe the sole remaining nonexecutive SABC board member, chairperson Obert Maghuve, will resign on Monday to impede the inquiry.
But parliamentary sources said it would go ahead either way.
Opposition parties are being engaged about starting off Tuesday’s inquiry with a closed session because several former CEOs have been called to testify, but signed nondisclosure agreements when leaving the SABC.
These are expected to include former CEO Lulama Mokhobo.
Other SABC staffers have been summonsed to appear at the inquiry, which will continue on Wednesday and Friday.
There will be a strong focus on Theresa Geldenhuys, the long-serving SABC company secretary recently promoted to group executive for risk and governance.
City Press has amassed proof of numerous questionable board approvals Geldenhuys signed off, especially after board resignations left it without a quorum.
Geldenhuys is also alleged by several insiders to be beyond retirement age and is unlawfully drawing both a state pension and an executive salary.
Testimony will cover serious procurement irregularities; a report from the Independent Communications Authority of SA on the SABC defying its regulations; alleged SABC election coverage bias as led by Media Monitoring Africa; the SABC’s unlawful changing of editorial policies to allow news censorship; and the SABC’s breach of employees’ labour rights as led by the SOS Coalition.
There will also be testimony from the eight journalists suspended for questioning perceived censorship, former public protector Thuli Madonsela and Communications Minister Faith Muthambi.
– Additional reporting by Andisiwe Makinana
This is a joint investigation between City Press and the SOS Coalition (soscoalition.org.za), which campaigns for independent, credible public broadcasting which advances South Africa’s constitutional democracy. SOS made Gedye’s investigation possible.