Rob Rose Editor: Financial Mail
Hlaudi Motsoeneng. File photo: FINANCIAL MAIL/RUSSELL ROBERTS
Hlaudi Motsoeneng. File photo: FINANCIAL MAIL/RUSSELL ROBERTS

If there’s a clear lesson from the widening crisis at the SABC, it’s that hiring executives at state-owned companies who lack even the most basic financial literacy leads only one way: bankruptcy.

You can see why it happens, of course. Many politicians of the “We’ll pick up the rand” philosophy seem to believe that “profit” is someone who flees to Malawi when facing fraud charges, and “loss” is what happens in by-elections. Fiscal competence, for them, is less valuable in a deployee than political credentials.

Take Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

Last week, there was a breathless article in The Star newspaper, telling us that Motsoeneng, the SABC’s former COO until he was booted out in mid-2017, had “broken his silence” on the crisis at the broadcaster.

This made it seem as if Motsoeneng had wisely kept his counsel until some admirably persistent hack finally twisted his arm — rather than the fact that nobody in their right mind would bother asking the dullest idiot in the village why the town seems to be so full of idiots.

Still, Motsoeneng let no-one down, providing a bracing reminder of exactly the sort of fiscal incoherence that led to the SABC hitting the wall, and why it is now mulling job cuts.

“In my time at the SABC, there was no bailout,” he told the newspaper. “There’s a difference between a bailout and a bank guarantee. I left the SABC with R8bn in the bank. What happened to that money?”

It was, needless to say, predictably and wildly wrong.

But even more stunning was the fact that the newspaper then said: “The Star has looked into Motsoeneng’s claims and found that at the time of his departure, the SABC had R8bn in its coffers.”

This is in no respect accurate.

Actually, in Motsoeneng’s last year in charge, to March 2017, the SABC made a R976m loss – more than double its R411m loss from the year before.

Worse: actual cash in the bank during that year vanished faster than a Gupta brother sensing an imminent arrest, plunging from R881m to R81m. Yes, that’s right – Motsoeneng’s company actually burnt through R800m in a year.

What he may have been speaking about was the fact that the SABC’s revenue that year was R7.5bn. But as anyone who’s ever handled anything more complex than a bank account will tell you, it all means nothing when you end up R976m in the red.

The fact that Motsoeneng, as the de facto head of the SABC at the time, doesn’t understand these embarrassingly simple metrics tells you all you need to know about why the SABC is where it is.

Quite why he was trotted out as any kind of expert on this issue is a mystery.

As Kate Skinner, executive director of the SA National Editors’ Forum, writes in News24, Motsoeneng was an utter disaster for the SABC.

“Under Motsoeneng, we had a flurry of deeply problematic decisions, including a directive to ensure 70% good news, the illegal banning of the coverage of protest action before the highly contested 2016 election, and a decision to implement 90% local content overnight.”

And, finally, Motsoeneng illegally amended the SABC’s editorial policies to make himself editor-in-chief. It was, Skinner says, a legacy that left the broadcaster in tatters.

It’s why, having clocked another R511m loss for the year to March 2020, it was left with little option but to cut jobs to balance the books. For a summary of this, read Tim Cohen’s report here.

Only now, thanks to the interference of communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, the decision on retrenchments has been “postponed” to the end of December.

It’s unclear what will have changed by then, absent the discovery of a magic tree that weeps banknotes all day.

If there’s anyone who knows the SABC, it’s Barney Mthombothi, the former head of the broadcaster’s news division (and former editor of the FM).

In a lacerating column in the Sunday Times this weekend, Mthombothi writes: “If it were a private company, it would have been forced to close shop long ago. A stupid government, it appears, is a godsend for public servants.”

At this point, says Skinner, “not retrenching is worse than retrenching, if the SABC is brought to its knees”.

The trick perhaps is to axe many of the overpaid executives and managers who aren’t part of the newsroom, and aren’t involved directly in the broadcaster’s core job — bringing you the news.

Where the money went

But if you think Motsoeneng and Ndabeni-Abrahams are fiscal ignoramuses, the trade unions lose nothing by comparison.

Aubrey Tshabalala, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, was palpably out of his depth when pressed by the Sunday Times’s Chris Barron on the SABC’s crisis.

Asked why the union never raised a peep when Motsoeneng was ramping up costs and creating this crisis, Tshabalala was unapologetic.

“When they meet our demands, it’s fine with us. In all the agreements we signed with Hlaudi there was a clause that said no retrenchments. There was never a less than 7% increase. We had an agreement of bonuses of R10,000,” he said.

Well, yes — facts not exactly unrelated to the reason why the SABC is bankrupt and now having to retrench people.

Tshabalala’s response: “Seven percent and 8% is not huge for us. You can’t push us into poverty, we’re not going to be apologetic.”

Well, thanks to that sort of short-sighted financial illiteracy, a whole lot more people may end up in poverty. But I suppose he won’t be apologetic about that either.

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