An explosive labour court case and details from top SABC insiders reveal how Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the public broadcaster’s controversial group executive of corporate affairs, allegedly ignored governance protocols to seize control of television content.
A City Press investigation has found that Motsoeneng allegedly “traumatised” Verona Duwarkah, the SABC’s former group executive for television, and made her staff report to him alone.
He then proceeded to set up a new process to commission R600 million worth of local TV shows.
For these, he brought in chosen producers, many of them celebrity actors, to the SABC through a back door.
This unit, called Special Projects, defies the SABC’s own commissioning policy, as well as the regulations of industry watchdog The Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa).
Motsoeneng’s flaunting of legislated procedures has, say insiders, contributed to massive losses at the SABC over the past year. This is backed up by Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu, who this week revealed that the broadcaster’s reported unauthorised, irregular, fruitless and wasteful spend – amounting to R421 million for 2015/16 – was massively understated. In fact, the figure amounts to R798.2 million.
City Press also learnt that Motsoeneng’s implementation of an 80% local TV content quota was done without a risk assessment – and with near-fatal repercussions for SABC3.
The war over local TV shows
In September, the labour court ruled in favour of Duwarkah, whose contract with the SABC was terminated in July.
In court papers she said an ongoing battle between her and Motsoeneng had left her emotionally, physically and mentally devastated.
This, she said, forced her to write a letter to Motsoeneng and SABC acting group human resources executive Mohlolo Lephaka, asking them to negotiate a settlement for her to leave the broadcaster after 25 years’ service.
The SABC then claimed this was a “resignation letter” and terminated her contract.
In an interview with City Press, conducted in the same expansive and heavily secured 27th-floor office he had in his former post as the SABC’s chief operating officer, Motsoeneng insisted he never fell out with Duwarkah.
However, the SABC’s answering affidavit makes it clear there was escalating tension between them. The broadcaster accuses Duwarkah of nonperformance by dragging out the commissioning of new TV programmes through the SABC’s approved 2014 Request for Proposals (RFP) book, sent to independent producers in its quest for 110 new TV shows.
The SABC also questions why – despite letters from her doctors – Duwarkah took so much sick leave after things came to a head with Motsoeneng, “respectfully” questioning “whether depression prevents one from working”. The broadcaster goes on to say her claims are “malicious”.
The court disagreed and Duwarkah returned to work in a different position. She was eventually paid out the remainder of her contract.
In her affidavit, Duwarkah, who was unavailable for comment this week, speaks of “severe stress” caused by repeatedly having to confront Motsoeneng over the SABC’s duty to follow procedure.
“The final straw came when instructions were given to me by Motsoeneng that I had to execute and implement material changes in policy, despite the fact that these were not approved in accordance with the operating standards and [were] lacking due diligence.”
She cites how she was hauled over the coals after her team rejected content proposals and the producers then complained to Motsoeneng. “Motsoeneng humiliated me in front of my team, despite me indicating that the SABC procurement process is a highly governed process,” she states, adding that she repeatedly warned Motsoeneng that his meddling in everything from the SA Music Awards line-up to sports events, and especially programming schedules, was negatively affecting SABC audiences and revenues.
“A material watershed moment arrived when Motsoeneng hand-picked a select few producers and instructed me ... to ensure they were given contracts, even though some of their proposals had previously been rejected by the content team.”
The content team evaluates programme pitches and makes decisions based on profitability, audience responses, quality and standard of productions.
Duwarkah says it was Motsoeneng who delayed the RFP commissions by making changes and halting processes – not her.
In response, the SABC says Duwarkah was covering for her failure to perform and that her claims are “irrelevant, untrue, unfounded and unsubstantiated personal attacks” on Motsoeneng. Motsoeneng admits to throwing out the RFP process, saying it was slow and cumbersome.
In court papers Duwarkah says Motsoeneng then wanted to increase quotas for local TV content. Four senior current and former SABC officials, who asked not to be named for fear of victimisation, told City Press this was a unilateral decision, made without any risk assessment.
“We were advised that ‘if we don’t walk and talk and behave like Motsoeneng, we should leave’,” Duwarkah says in her affidavit, adding that Motsoeneng called her “a stumbling block” in front of senior staffers such as James Aguma and Jimi Matthews, and “lambasted” her for raising issues of SABC TV’s escalating costs and decline in revenue and viewers.
Duwarkah adds that Motsoeneng then instructed her to set up a meeting with two senior staffers and told her that “they report to him now directly, and he will deal with content-related projects in his office”.
On June 13, she says, she was told that “the content team will no longer report to me”.
Motsoeneng then effectively armed Special Projects – which was overseen by SABC’s head of education, Danie Swart, and SABC2’s programming director, Jacqui Hlongwane – with the R600 million budget previously intended for the RFP book for independent producers.
The SABC’s answering affidavit reveals that only 57 of the 1 426 proposals received were commissioned.
Motsoeneng then announced that the RFP book was scrapped – but by then, R200 million had been spent on it.
According to two senior insiders, this sum was diverted from marketing budgets to bring the total back to R600 million for Motsoeneng’s favoured producers.
Motsoeneng did not deny this when the claims were put to him, but questioned City Press’ understanding of how business was done, saying he could, and would, divert funds strategically whenever needed – and that Special Projects was dealing with emerging producers and growing new talent.
Caught in a policy lie
But to scrap the RFP book – and, with it, the process – and establish new ways of commissioning TV shows, Icasa regulations dictate Motsoeneng needs an approved Commissioning Protocol Policy, which must be placed on the SABC’s website.
“We have changed that policy; we have put in a new policy for procurement,” Motsoeneng said in response, adding that the RFP book revealed too many of the SABC’s business plans to rival broadcasters and was painfully slow to implement.
The new policy, he said, “has been approved by the board of SABC. It is a current policy, which means I can’t talk about history, which is the previous policy that you are referring to.”
He and SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago insisted all regulations were followed.
Kganyago later sent the new policy to City Press, but on investigation it appeared that the “new” policy had been extracted from the SABC’s Supply Chain Management (SCM) manual to satisfy compliance with the Public Finance Management Act.
Speaking on behalf of The South African Screen Federation, Marc Schwinges said when using the usual section of the commissioning section of the SABC’s site, there was no link to a Commissioning Protocol.
City Press managed to find a 2009 policy, approved by Icasa in 2010.
But Motsoeneng’s new content commissioning system contravenes numerous clauses of the SCM and the 2010 policies, not least for failing to be “equitable, transparent, fair and accountable”.
The SABC did not respond to detailed questions in this regard.
Icasa spokesperson Paseka Maleka confirmed the SABC had submitted new commissioning protocols in June.
“Upon scrutiny ... the authority noted that certain portions contained in the last amendment, and the approved Commissioning Protocol of 2010, were omitted in the amended protocol ... To this end, the SABC was advised that it needed to address certain sections in line with the commissioning protocols regulations, and that the protocols submitted in June are null and void.”
According to the SABC’s binding 2010 policy, the commissioning of unsolicited proposals should not displace an RFP process.
This week, the Auditor-General reported on the SABC, saying: “Irregular expenditure was a result of SCM processes and policies not being followed. Poor record management, policies lacking alignment and inadequate compliance monitoring contributed significantly” to the SABC’s irregular expenditure.
The SABC’s Special Projects department is regarded by many as a back door to push through commissions.
But SABC group executive of corporate affairs Hlaudi Motsoeneng denies this, saying there is a single content team at work at the SABC.
I don’t have friends.
Insiders, however, don’t agree, with one saying: “Those who have access to the 27th floor are making all the new content.”
In May, soap stars Sophie Ndaba and Winnie Ntshaba, and performers Somizi Mhlongo, Arthur Mafokate and Khanyi Mbau, were earmarked for production development as part of the SABC’s plan to empower local production houses and talent.
Other producers announced were DJ Finzo, Ntombi Mzolo, Thapelo Moraka and Pearl Modiadie.
Motsoeneng dismisses the idea that his or his close SABC associate Sully Motsweni’s “friends” are benefiting from the new arrangement.
“I don’t have friends,” he told City Press.
“When I check your questions about certain individuals, we don’t do business because people come and complain in my office as you are putting it. It’s ‘Home Affairs’ here, people call this office Home Affairs. Or ‘hospital’.
“I have an open-door policy. I talk to everyone and I listen to everyone. We are making sure that we empower emerging production houses and we are targeting all provinces and we want people to produce programming in their own languages.”
One example of preferential treatment cited by many sources is Ndaba and Ntshaba’s proposed new show, The Healers, a mythical yet futuristic drama featuring mermaids.
One SABC insider said the Special Projects department’s Jacqui Hlogwane helped write the proposal for the show.
Asked about this, Motsoeneng replied: “That is a good question. The role of the SABC is to guide and also to empower all these emerging media houses.”
Ndaba has also been linked to a new wedding show and a new soap opera pitched to Motsoeneng, according to four current and former SABC officials.
The wedding show was initially rejected by SABC commissioning editors because Ndaba owns a wedding planning business and they felt the show promoted it.
Motsoeneng said he encouraged Ndaba’s business success.
One SABC insider said Motsoeneng had been heard stating: “Somizi [Mhlongo] must come, Danie [Swart] and Jacqui [Hlongwane] will help him with his proposal.”
Ndaba and Ntshaba did not respond to questions.
“We want former actors to be owners of their own productions ... Transformation at the SABC is not negotiable,” Motsoeneng said.
Independent producers, however, say Motsoeneng is doing untold damage to the industry by throwing out the RFP system.
The Independent Producers’ Organisation (IPO), which represents “the majority of the television producers supplying content to broadcasters in South Africa”, said in a statement: “The IPO is aware of Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s parallel commissioning process for his chosen handful of aspirant producers.
“They are often actors or recognised industry persons, who are not experienced producers, and have themselves reached out to numerous of our members, requesting ‘assistance’ in their significant pre-allocated budgets, since they lack the necessary production experience.
“As a result, the allocated funds would essentially be given to ‘middle men and women’ who are given credits they are not qualified for.”
The statement says the independent production sector fought hard for independent commissioning, and fair and transparent procedures, and this has opened the door “to unfair and corrupt commissioning practices that were a hallmark of a dated broadcaster in days long gone.”
Motsoeneng said in response: “It will be misleading to say production houses are unhappy. Maybe your sources are not prepared for transformation.”
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.