Ray Hartley Editor: BusinessLIVE
Ben Ngubane. Picture: SABC
Ben Ngubane. Picture: SABC

There was something sad yet dignified about the testimony of Phil Molefe to the parliamentary committee investigating the SABC board.

Always a gentleman, with a voice that carries the gravel of authority, Molefe has worked in the craft for decades.

Yes, he was one of those who was silent - at least to the public - while the SABC was turned into the personal fiefdom of Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

Offered the opportunity to redeem himself by talking candidly about the broadcaster, he did not hold back.

A lot of attention has been focused on current SABC board chairman Mbulaheni Maguvhe. The sole remaining board member has refused to appear before the committee, citing one excuse after another. There can be no question that his leadership was weak and compromised.

But what was striking about Molefe's testimony was his timely reminder of how the Hlaudi Motsoeneng rot set in under the previous chairman, Ben Ngubane.

This is what Molefe testified about Ngubane: 

"The Chairman offered me a prepared letter recommending a R500 000 salary increment for Mr Motsoeneng. I refused to sign the letter. Mr Motsoeneng stepped in and said: 'Chair, I told you that this is not our man, so I am going to Pretoria tonight'."

The mind boggles. How is it possible that the remuneration of a staff member - Motsoeneng was not at that time a member of the board - should demand the personal attention of a board chairman?

It was while Ngubane was chairman that Motsoeneng entrenched himself and that the Gupta family was brought into the SABC family.

Pressure was brought to bear on Molefe to cut deals with the Guptas. He refused.

"The position I took did not go down well with the Gupta brothers. Mr Motsoeneng tried to persuade me, urging me to try to soften my approach in dealing with the Guptas.

"I refused, pointing out that I would not make irregular and unjustifiable decisions."

Then a telling revelation about the source of Motsoeneng's power.

"There is some form of protection from the president. In the public space, it first emerged when the minister herself (Communications Minister Faith Muthambi) said 'this is the president's choice'. That was widely reported on. But also in the corridors, it is something that is widely spoken about - that there must be a force somewhere - we don't know where, but somewhere - that protects him."

So, let's look at the pieces of the puzzle.

Motsoeneng was anointed by Jacob Zuma via his minister, Muthambi. He rose to power in the SABC with the help of Ngubane, who went so far as to personally demand Motsoeneng be awarded an irregular R500 000 increase.

When the SABC ship began to lilt badly, Ngubane was given a new assignment - chairman of the board of Eskom. There he presided over the board while a series of dodgy contracts involving the Guptas were concluded. When Thuli Madonsela exposed the extent of the problem, the Eskom CEO, Brian Molefe, resigned.

Ngubane's response as chairman was to launch an all-out assault on Madonsela - hardly the actions of a corporate guardian. The correct response by a board facing scouring criticism from an independent institution of state ought to have been to root out the rot. Zuma's man had other ideas.

What role does Ngubane play in the Zuma empire? Ngubane used to be the right-hand man of Inkatha's leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, at a time when that organisation was involved in a low-level civil war with the ANC.

At negotiations over South Africa's future, he and Buthelezi led the country to the brink until an 11th hour deal saw Inkatha participate in the 1994 election. Word was that Ngubane had been the moderate chink in Buthelezi's militant armour.

Zuma led the process of reconciling the ANC and Inkatha, which was included in the post-apartheid government of national unity with Ngubane and Buthelezi getting cabinet posts.

Ngubane sensed the political opportunity and all but abandoned the IFP to hitch his wagon to Zuma and the ANC. Zuma, as much an ethnic traditionalist as the Inkatha crowd, made a natural ally.

It was a move which paid off handsomely with a succession of government positions and high-paying corporate gigs including the SABC and Eskom.

There is no evidence that Ngubane has enriched himself at the expense of the institutions he has presided over. But he has been more of a hatchet man than a chairman, when it comes to protecting Zuma and his friends.

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