Former SABC chairwoman decries ‘gross political interference’
Speaking before Parliament’s ad hoc committee, Ellen Tshabalala singled out the ANC, DA and SACP as parties who wanted to ‘dictate’ her policies
Disgraced former SABC chairwoman Ellen Tshabalala says her tenure at the public broadcaster was characterised by "gross political interference" and politicians wanting to dictate to her what policies she should support, and who she should fire.
Tshabalala, who, on Friday, was the last witness to appear before Parliament’s ad hoc committee looking into the mess at the SABC, singled out the ANC, the DA and the SACP. She said at one point she received a phone call from an SACP official who asked her to support the encryption of set-top boxes, which will be required when digital migration occurs.
She also said she had received phone calls from people asking her to get rid of Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the SABC’s former controversial chief operating officer.
"A number of people called me to say they do not like Hlaudi … [they] asked me to get rid of him, but I am not that kind of leader … There were politicians who would say ‘For you succeed, get rid of ... so and so’," said Tshabalala, who said she was later made aware there was a plan to remove her from the SABC as she was perceived to be the "wrong chairperson".
Asked by MPs to provide names of individuals who had interfered with the board affairs, Tshabalala — who had earlier mentioned SACP leader Blade Nzimande but recanted — said she would provide the committee with a detailed written response.
Tshabalala resigned from the SABC in 2015 amid controversy after an inquiry by Parliament’s communications committee found that, like Motsoeneng, she had misrepresented her qualifications. The committee found her guilty of misrepresentation and of misconduct for lying about having a degree. It recommended that she be suspended pending her dismissal by President Jacob Zuma, but she resigned before this process could proceed. Tshabalala told the committee that she left her position due to "negative publicity over her [academic] credentials".
She was grilled about a number of decisions the SABC took under her watch, including the controversial MultiChoice deal, the partnership with the Gupta-owned TNA to air The New Age’s business breakfasts, the handling of the 2014 public protector’s report, and the subsequent appointment of Motsoeneng as the permanent chief operating officer in 2014.
Tshabalala said the MultiChoice deal did not disadvantage the SABC, but gave it a platform to "popularise" the public broadcaster as it could be accessed by most countries on the continent. As part of the MultiChoice dea,l worth about R533m, the SABC agreed to supply DStv with a 24-hour news channel, an entertainment channel called Encore, and access to the public broadcaster’s archives. Industry experts say SABC was underpaid and the deal was anti-competitive.
On the plan to air The New Age’s business breakfasts on SABC, Tshabalala indicated that she had raised concern about the arrangement, and other sponsorships, which she felt needed to be interrogated further.
She denied accusations that she had bullied the board into agreeing to appoint Motsoeneng: "I did not push for the appointment of Hlaudi. Some wanted him to be appointed because he had acted for a long time, others just did not like him."
Tshabalala claimed that the board was actually pressured by Parliament to urgently fill key executive positions, including that of chief operating officer. "The pressure stemmed from this Parliament, that you have to fill the executive positions urgently. I do not think we flouted processes," she said, adding that Motsoeneng had acted in the role for a lengthy period and therefore had a legitimate expectation that he would be appointed on a full-time basis. There were concerns within the board that if Motsoeneng was not appointed he could launch a legal challenge, Tshabalala said.
Motsoeneng’s appointment was made despite the public protector’s report, which found that he had fabricated a matric qualification, purged those he disagreed with, and irregularly increased his salary from R1.5m to R2.4m in one year. According to Tshabalala, the public protector’s report was partly "factually incorrect".
Earlier, another former board chairman, Ben Ngubane, told the committee that the public protector’s report was not based on fact, and he was "disempowered" as his responses to the provisional report were ignored. The SABC has approached the courts to challenge the report.
Committee chairman Vincent Smith said the committee would begin drafting a report on the inquiry next week with the committee’s support staff compiling a working document summarising the various testimonies heard since December over the weekend. The working document will be provided to committee members on Monday; members will then have until Wednesday to apply their minds to the working report, he said.
"On January 19 and 20, we will reconvene to try and put together a draft report. We will then put it forward formally for adoption on January 24. The draft report will be sent to affected members — in the main, the executive members of the SABC. We will give them a deadline for February 9 to comment on the report," said Smith.
The committee hoped to adopt the final report by February 28.