S Grootes: Hlaudi, an immovable object
On Thursday Hlaudi Motsoeneng, through his lawyers, made it abundantly clear that he is not going to go down without a fight. That he is going to do everything he can to stay on as Chief Operating Officer at the SABC. This means he is now directly challenging the Public Protector, if not in court just yet, then certainly in the court of public opinion. At the same time, on Friday, the Mail & Guardian quoted SABC board Chair Ellen Tshabalala as saying she was perfectly happy with his work. Everything seems to indicate that this entire thing is about more than just Motsoeneng's personal future.
Anyone who had ever met Hlaudi Motsoeneng wouldn't need to be told that this was going to be his reaction. For most people to have a legal finding from Advocate Thuli Madonsela that they purged staff from the SABC, that they committed fraud by claiming to have a matric, and that they received several salary increases in one year against the rules would be a signal that perhaps they should consider moving on with their lives. Not Motsoeneng. He has a kind of inner swagger that many politicians might love to possess. It takes far more than this kind of thing to get him down; there will be no outward indication that he even feels the stress.
Remind you of anyone? Someone who seems to take anything with equanimity; who simply laughs in the face of tough questions.
Number One, perhaps?
The similarities don't end there. Motsoeneng, we now know, doesn't have a matric. It makes him the second-most famous public figure without one. He also comes from a place far from the urban centres, again like Number One. And he seems to make a virtue of taking on the "educated," the "clever blacks" if you like, and winning.
It is often wondered aloud: why is it that so many people seem to support Motsoeneng? He hasn't survived this long just because of political protection. In the end, it's probably because he does actually get things done. In a corporation where the will to act is obviously lacking, he is a rare beast. If you've been trying to get a news channel off the ground for five years, he is the guy to go to, to get it done. He does get results; even his critics would have to concede that. Which is why for some people, his possible departure would possibly be the end of a certain era within the SABC, in which it's grown, increased its channels, and generally started to get moving again. Never mind the rough edges and swagger that came with it.
But to read through Madonsela's report, it seems there really is no escape for Motsoeneng this time. If he ever does actually decide to answer questions himself, perhaps the hardest is going to be this: How is it that all the people who testified against you in a disciplinary hearing appeared to leave the SABC so soon after you assumed your acting position? It really does appear to be unanswerable. We're not talking about one or two people here. And we're not talking about a group of people all in one office. So there's no way it's a coincidence. As Goldfinger put it once (in the second best line of the Bond canon) "Once is happenstance, twice is enemy action."
However, what might really sink him is this matric certificate. As Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton should have said, "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up". In this case, Motsoeneng didn't have a matric certificate, and said that he did. Lawyers have a word for this: fraud.
The fact that he himself decided not to take questions during the press conference, leaving it to his attorney Zola Majavu to do the talking, may well be an indication he is beginning to feel the pressure. It is certainly unlike a man who once proclaimed, after taking a political discussion off Metro FM, that "this is leadership at its best".
But, dear reader, if you have been paying attention over the last few years, you will probably know that this is a country where the rule of law does not necessarily always triumph. Where it's not what you did or didn't do, but who you know that matters. And back to Number One we go.
In this case, the next step really rests with two entities. The first is the SABC board. Don't get your hopes too high. That's not a comment on the board's members; it's really a reminder of what happened before. As it is simply impossible to remember how many boards of the SABC there have been over the last few years (just slightly more than Communications Ministers, for those who keep score), a brief précis: The last board voted to fire Motsoeneng. The chair, Ben Ngubane, then appeared to refuse to implement the decision, i.e. he wouldn't take the right letter to the right person to make it official. Then board members started resigning left, right and centre. In the end, the whole thing collapsed, and in a process that has now becoming depressingly routine, Parliament elected another board. Motsoeneng was the only one left standing.
However, this board does appear to be slightly different. In the past, we've seen board members essentially representing certain constituencies within the Alliance, so there was someone from the unions, someone from the SACP, etc. This time, the board seems more Zuma-ite than anything else. On the day after Nelson Mandela died, Zuma made a brief appearance during a press conference in an SABC lecture theatre. The front row of seats was reserved for the board. They all dutifully appeared. To watch Zuma speak for three minutes, in a presentation that was carried live by pretty much every single television network outside North Korea.
Homage to Madiba? Perhaps. Fealty to someone else? Maybe.
So into the board's lap lands this hot potato. Expect a delay. It is not in their interests to deal with this quickly. And with an election coming up, where Motsoeneng would play a role in planning and editing coverage, instructions may come from on high that the status quo suits some people just fine for the moment. And considering that, according to the Mail & Guardian, Tshabalala believes it's fine and dandy to have a liar running the show, it would seem that change is not gonna come.
However, the other actor in all of this may not be so happy. Yunis Carrim is the (relatively) new Communications Minister who has to deal with this. He's made a virtue of being upfront and honest about the situation in his sector, which, considering his predecessor, is rather refreshing. But he might well long for the complexities of broadband policy, and taking on MTN over cell phone call prices, when he has to deal with this.
In the end, it's important to note one fact here. It may be unfair to point this out, but it could turn out to be important. Both the SABC board, and Carrim, could well answer to the same boss. Who benefits from the status quo. And if the whispers are correct, so does Motsoeneng.
In other words, their interests are all aligned. Which means that no action will be taken in the end.
Stephen Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.