SABC top brass threaten to quit over board ‘meddling’

SABC’s three top executives have threatened to quit, claiming they face constant meddling and interference from members of the board.

This week the three top bosses – group CEO Madoda Mxakwe, outgoing chief operating officer Craig van Rooyen and chief financial officer Yolande van Biljon – wrote to the board, detailing instances of alleged interference by two of its members.

The board is responsible for the SABC’s broad strategic mandate and is not permitted to interfere in the day-to-day activities of the public broadcaster.

On Tuesday, the three sent a letter to board chair Bongumusa Makhathini responding to the board’s request for examples of interference after they complained about it in an initial letter sent in June.

The examples they cited include:

  • A board member’s suggestion that they give ministers free access to SABC news in return for “political mileage”;
  • Editorial interference in the news department, including an incident where a state-owned agency sent an e-mail to a producer demanding that a SABC board member, who is the CEO of that agency, be interviewed on one of the flagship news programmes;
  • Board members allegedly using board meetings to demand tickets for various events, including sports and elections gala dinners, to which they did not pitch up; and
  • Board members being unprepared for meetings, or arriving late, which “disrupts” the executives’ work and wastes their time.

In the letter, the executives accuse a board member of peddling a lie about executives hatching a plan to pay themselves performance bonuses while the public broadcaster begs for a government bailout.

But those close to the implicated board members hit back, saying they were being targeted by the three executives and other board members for asking difficult questions about the corporation’s ability to meet the stringent turnaround targets set by finance minister Tito Mboweni as a precondition for a R3.2bn bailout.

“The SABC has not met the bailout conditions, in fact they want a bailout without conditions. That is what those board members are concerned about and what they keep questioning the leadership of the organisation about. This is the reason why they are being singled out,” said a source close to the implicated board members.

The latest drama comes as the government this week again rejected the SABC’s request for a R3.2bn bailout.

In a letter sent on Tuesday to the broadcaster’s board, communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams and Mboweni refused to release any of the funds “until the two departments are satisfied that the public broadcaster has fully complied or demonstrated a commitment to comply with all preconditions for funding”.

These include that the SABC should tell the Treasury how much money it needs and back this up with a detailed cash-flow projection for the next 12 to 18 months.

The Treasury also wants the broadcaster to identify how it will boost revenue and cut costs, and tell it how much money it is saving. It must also investigate what caused its financial collapse and why previous turnaround plans have failed.

The Sunday Times has seen minutes of a board meeting held on July 31, called to discuss the executives’ first letter of complaint about the treatment they allegedly received from two board members.

In their first letter, the executives complained that their ability to make decisions was compromised by “a breakdown of trust and second-guessing of their leadership” by some board members.

In a heated meeting, Mxakwe threatened that he and his two colleagues would “walk” if the board did not address their concerns.

“I think this board needs to take a decision whether they want us here or not because these few board members are continuing to add chaos and havoc in this organisation. I cannot be expected to lead an organisation where there’s constant undermining of what we are doing, particularly in the circumstances we find ourselves in at the SABC,” he said.

The executives singled out deputy board chair Mamodupi Mohlala-Mulaudzi and board members Marcia Socikwa as “troublemakers”. Sources told the Sunday Times that Socikwa attended the meeting at which the accusations were discussed but Mohlala-Mulaudzi was not present. Mohlala-Mulaudzi and Socikwa declined to comment.

Mxakwe told the meeting that the situation was untenable.

“Personally, I took a huge salary cut to be here. We are here to play a role in this country in turning around this organisation. So it does concern me that these few board members are still continuing to undermine the work that collectively we are doing at the SABC,” he told the board.

Van Rooyen, who has since resigned as chief operating officer, echoed Mxakwe’s concerns. He cited threats by board members that executives would not receive performance bonuses.

“I really want the best for the SABC. Like the CEO, I took almost half a salary cut to come here and I did not come here for a bonus … often in this very meeting I hear board members say we won’t get a bonus. I didn’t come for a bonus,” he said.

Van Biljon told the board that serious aspersions were being cast about their integrity “on an alarming and regular basis”.

At the meeting, Makhathini came to the executives’ defence, vouching for their integrity, experience and performance and urged the rest of the board to support them.

Contacted, Mxakwe referred queries to Makhathini. Van Rooyen and Van Biljon could not be reached for comment.

Makhathini said he would not discuss internal board matters. “The board reaffirms its utmost support and respect for the executive directors, who have done a sterling job thus far,” he said.

Sunday Times Live