Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Picture: BUSINESS DAY
Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

HLAUDI Motsoeneng’s carefully crafted patronage network hangs in the balance as the SABC mulls what to do with him following another drubbing at the Supreme Court of Appeal.

Motsoeneng was called magnanimous by South African musicians when as chief operating officer he introduced a 90% local-content rule at the public broadcaster’s radio stations; he was deemed reckless and a force of destruction by nongovernmental organisations and analysts who say he has ruled the SABC with an iron fist and stifled editorial freedom; and he is favoured by the powerful who have shielded him.

The appellate court has thrown out his application for leave to appeal against a High Court in Cape Town judgment setting aside his appointment as chief operating officer, leaving the SABC to deal with a political hot potato.

So far, the broadcaster has retreated and not pronounced on the latest setback as it charts its next move.

All decisions Motsoeneng made prior to the appellate court’s ruling remain in place, but analysts say he is now constrained to performing any function that does not require a matric qualification and any decisions he takes will be invalid because of the ruling.

Motsoeneng’s lawyer, Zola Majavu, says his client arrived at work on Tuesday as a "normal employee" and his fate is in the hands of the SABC board.

Majavu says he has written to the public broadcaster, asking for clarity on Motsoeneng’s status. "To be fair to the SABC, we need to afford them an opportunity to consult their own lawyers and revert as soon as they are able to do so."

Should Motsoeneng go down, he will likely take a number of senior executives, whom he hired, with him.

It is through them he has been able to wield influence at the SABC. They, too, have much to lose and a lot riding on what the board decides to do with Motsoeneng.

Board chairman Mbulayeni Maguvhe would not comment on the issue and the SABC has not responded to detailed questions about Motsoeneng.

The broadcaster has also postponed its results presentation to next week, perhaps to bide its time as it searches for a resolution to its Motsoeneng poser.

The executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, Lawson Naidoo, says the decisions Motsoeneng made before the judgment was handed down would stand.

Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird says it is unlikely that Motsoeneng would accept a golden handshake, which would be the best-case scenario for the public broadcaster.

However, the board will probably try to find another position for Motsoeneng, Bird says.

"Depending on where the balance of powers lie, he’s going to be appointed into some different kind of position.

"But it will not solve the problem. You still have a board that is more pliable than a piece of sticky chewing gum and a government minister who interferes."

In 2014, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found that Motsoeneng had fabricated his matric qualification and increased his salary irregularly, from R1.5m to R2.4m in one year.

Motsoeneng has spent more than two years fighting for his job in various courts, at the expense of the public — and with the support of Communications Minister Faith Muthambi and the SABC.

The decisions he has taken as chief operating officer have had a far-reaching impact on the public broadcaster. These include decisions described as censorship and which have contributed to the decline of editorial independence.

In January, the board amended the broadcaster’s editorial policy. This resulted in Motsoeneng taking on the role of editor-in-chief. He imposed a "sunshine news" quota, banned footage of violent protests, scrapped the reading of newspaper headlines on SABC radio stations, canned the SAfm media show The Editors and did away with analysts and commentators.

The SABC has veered far away from its core mandate, which is to be a critical instrument in advancing SA’s constitutional democracy. The Motsoeneng saga is in a way an echo of past battles with previous executives, but with one clear distinction — there appears to be no clear will from the executive to bring the drama to a close.