Congress politics and death of democracy

Lesotho Times
18 Min Read

Matsokoane Sebatane

IN my opinion column “Who ‘owns’ the govt of Lesotho” (Lesotho Times 22 December 2016) to stop Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s adviser Dr Fako Likoti from trashing our dignity as a nation, and pitting our state against both the civilized international community and our citizenry; I said only the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)’s Hlaudi Motšoeneng and his President Jacob Zuma got away with similar acts.

Messrs Motšoeneng and Zuma are that duo who vulgarised the Biblical adage that man might not live by bread alone, if you take education as equivalent of bread in today’s world. When he was unmasked as having no matric in 2014, Hlaudi had gone from relative obscurity of the SABC’s vernacular Lesedi Stereo newsroom in a farming province of Free State to perching the highest reaches of the corporation as acting Chief Operations Officer (COO), overseeing operations of 18 radio stations and four television stations.

He had savoured a conqueror’s progress, steamrollering process and man alike on his way up, boasting mammoth biennial salary increases among others. He dispatched the majority of the board and executives to oblivion by a mere click of finger to minister and board chairpersons. Then the Public Protector unmasked and recommended him for disciplinary hearing for deception and investigation for multiple corrupt acts.  This notwithstanding, among the new minister’s first words to the SABC board following the 2014 elections, was about necessity to confirm Hlaudi in post. One short week later the minister directed the board to meet, and remained on the scene through its duration, turning in to thank it for delivering, having brought it a “letter from Hlaudi’s lawyer” complaining that his client was overdue for confirmation as COO.

The corporation then whitewashed him with a bogus, outsourced disciplinary tribunal which cleared him of misconduct, in vain attempt to head off implementation of Public Protector’s directives. When a High Court granted the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) plea to declare the appointment unlawful and irrational, vindicating the board’s minority who were bullied and outvoted by the minister’s pleasers; the indefatigable Mr Motšoeneng appealed and lost at the Supreme Court, which also disallowed him taking the matter to the Constitutional Court.  The SABC as instantly named him Group Executive for Corporate Affairs, saying their understanding was that the judgment jettisoned him from the COO post but didn’t discharge him from the employ of the corporation.

In a DA challenge to this, the court made it unequivocally clear that the original judgment actually meant Hlaudi no longer had any place in the corporation, and further ordered that he should bear costs of suit, contrary to his established tradition of hounding everybody from board to executives at the corporation’s expense.

Given these shenanigans and the public kerfuffle they aroused, the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications summoned the board to explain itself.  The bile spill here, with televised trading of accusations, and live resignations of two of the remaining three non-executive (i.e outsider) board members, leaving the chairman Professor Mbulaheni Maghuve alone, jogged parliament to establish an ad hoc committee to investigate the fitness of the board to continue in office. Contrary to Hlaudi and the minister, this was the only way to terminate (members of) the board. The professor challenged parliament’s decision in court and lost, and appealed the verdict while remaining unaware that he had to foot the bill himself. The committee heard that the omnipotent Hlaudi was, in the words of former acting Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Phil Molefe, inexplicably “airlifted” from Free State and “parachuted” onto the Group CEO office as a general manager, which post didn’t even exist; whereas chairman also mysteriously sat him on the board despite being junior officer.

Remember Lesotho’s own parachuting of first the “Reconciliation Officers”, then the factory workers and Radio Lesotho parrots, and the army and police recruits, then “big” families kith and kin? It starts with “deployment” of candidates in the constituencies, and then “cadres” in national corporations, colleges, etc.; even “anointment” of leadership successor or muzzling of debates thereon. Here, what you are “given” is “yours”, and yours alone. This is the story of the Democratic Congress (DC) and its parent Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD).

Hlaudi was not long in post when board chairman decided to take and exercise the (acting) CEO’s powers to nominate top executives to act in his absence. On his next outing, the acting CEO tried in vain to know who was named therefore, and learned while abroad that Hlaudi was picked acting CEO, a scenario to which he was known to be implacably opposed as he considered Hlaudi a greenhorn. The next week Hlaudi was named to hold office for COO, who did not exist. Molefe was soon irregularly suspended for resisting incursion into his editorial prerogative, then given a cash settlement when he went to court. A short walk down the time line, the minister handed down a new Memorandum of Incorporation (MoI) and Delegation of Authority Framework (DAF, mark rhyme with “death”), by-passing the requisite board sanction, giving to executives the board’s powers to contract on behalf of the corporation, to hire and fire and discipline their peers and everyone else as they saw fit; whereupon they usurped functions of established committees like audit, governance, risk management, and human resources. This compromised the corporation’s integrity and betrayed its legislated mandate. Multiple trumped up charges were rapidly churned out and out-of-court settlements in millions volunteered to sanitize their stable. The apex was abolition of the risk management executive’s post. In Maseru we let die the constitutional Planning Board. A finance minister placed its stillborn dummy under him.  He killed a constitutional Auditor-General’s annual report in favour of so-called Statement of Financial Affairs (SOFA).

When COO Hlaudi personally took over procurement personally, SABC instantly incurred M700 million in irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure according to the auditor-general, reaching M3.4bn the following year. Some of the highlights were a M43 million “rugby world cup” studio set, Gupta Brothers’ assisted attempt to annex and turn into their own 24-hr news channel an entire SABC-tv channel while taxpayer bore its upkeep costs, the SABC’s broadcasting of Guptas’ TheNewAge Breakfast show where TNA laps all income at zero cost, arm-twisting ministries to book tables at M400 000 each per occasion. In comparison, we killed a national hospital for that Netcare swindle which is everyone’s talk, and killed our national pharmaceutical company without even safeguarding its patents’ fate. Where Hlaudi and his chairman told parliament that the SABC made its own money, and couldn’t tolerate accusations of non-accountability at taxpayers’ expense; our Lt-Gen. Tlali Kamoli once said he built army victims homes with army money, not that of government!

Hlaudi’s minister and board chairman took Public Protector’s prescribed remedial measures as merely advisory, the way the Presidency and National Assembly did in respect of the Nkandla scandal, for which they were strongly rebuked by full-bench constitutional court. And of course, Speaker Baleka Mbethe blocked Members’ questions to the Presidency and government on the subject, the same way that our Speaker Ntlhoi Motsamai shielded government from taking Members’ questions on the initial disappearance, abduction, and torture of some LDF members by others last year. Yet these things can undo governments. Zuma’s ANC hasn’t recovered from local government election losses following Nkandla, which mirrored our own prime minister’s notorious camels. Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing’s alleged disposal of M53 million unprocedurally on supposed local government public works was the first shot in the in-fighting of our short-lived 2012 coalition government; and similar disposal of M15 million earlier by former natural resources minister Monyane Moleleki was entry point in his perceived persecution by that government.  The current government is unraveling from secrecy, deceit, arrogance, and unaccountability.

Whereas the Broadcasting Act obligates the SABC to maintain libraries, Hlaudi and Co. “sold” the entire SABC archives to the Multichoice private pay-tv channel, for a handsome price.  Hlaudi received roughly M11 million in “thank you” payment, and accepted a deal clause binding SABC to take a particular position on the set-top boxes which the state was to commission and distribute to subscribers towards digital migration. The minister told the committee she wasn’t aware that archives were a national heritage, and SABC mandate was betrayed.  The minister naturally also denied claims by one witness that she once said to a late board member (later sacked) that, “Ubaba (the patriarch) loves Hlaudi, please take care of him.”

Hlaudi attracted universal attention to his enormity by banning television visuals of violent protests against the ANC and government, when residents burned schools in the minister’s constituency of Vuwani, against being transferred to another municipal district; while Tshwane ANC members burned buses and destroyed shops to protest imposition of the party’s sweetheart as “their” 2016 municipal candidate in replacement of a much-loved “homeboy” incumbent.

The widely publicized resistance and summary axing of the “SABC 8” senior journos, and SABC stubbornness against the regulator’s directive to lift the ban, was the immediate backdrop of the portfolio committee summons. You don’t quite miss Lesotho National Broadcasting Service here, but anyone who has asked around knows that what to publish is the holy preserve of editors, not COOs and politicians. This includes that self-endearing 90 percent local music content prescribed by Hlaudi to redeem himself, and saluted by many including some Lesotho artistes who have recorded a Hlaudi song. When Lesotho’s cabinet turned itself into procurement office in that “new” Bidvest deal in violation of public finance managements laws and regulations and global best practices, they similarly received praises of some like DC’s Ramahooana Matlosa and company for “empowering Basotho”. These things happen. Looking at the SABC board heavyweights that were struck down by the Hlaudi lightning, one wonders how a no-weight like Lebelonyane’s Letsatsi Mabona ended up on the board of our Water and Sewerage Company (WASCO) about whose CEO’s earlier appointment none lesser than “their” Ramahooana himself had publicly voiced suspicion of foul play; only for Mabona to be ejected therefrom when Lebelonyana publicly accused finance minister of corruption in the Bidvest affair. At least the SA parliament can make repeated references to King III (third report of Sir Mervin King on Corporate Governance) which most executives of state and corporations in Lesotho, like the SABC minister, neither know nor appreciate.

So ingrained was the rot that a classroom-size (17) SABC top brass inexplicably abandoned work and camped in Cape Town for over one week of hearings, earning chairman’s excoriation for showy dereliction of duty. They walked out en masse in conceited solidarity with their boorish chairman who suddenly, boisterously protested the absence of Braille text of committee demands from him when his testifying time came, then followed his flock out. This despite SABC having long acquired Braille technology specifically for him, and having responded to parliament without making this demand in January 2014; and despite SABC secretary timeously asking committee to forward all material in Microsoft Word format for Braille transcription by SABC for current proceedings. The committee later named both chairman and secretary for possible perjury, together with the minister.

From the walkout, board chairman convened a defiant media conference where one staff member called the committee a kangaroo court. On their next appearance by summons on the chairman, committee ordered the unidentified executive to step forward and apologise unconditionally. After he obliged, his colleagues heartily giggled and gave him a hi-five greeting of player who scored a match-winning goal. The SABC instructed a lawyer to write to the committee saying bringing certain documents would compromise its commercial interests, yet all past staff and board, secretary and chairman later testified there was no such risk, SABC gave same stuff to portfolio committee in 2014.  The SABC declined invitation to cross-examine witnesses, and later the Hlaudi-appointed acting GCEO undertook to make a written submission but not take a stance to counter any claims, which the committee rejected. Yet another lawyer wrote to the committee to say SABC shall lead evidence and cross-examine all witnesses on a date it nominated, which the committee again rejected. The professor resigned a week after his grueling ordeal at the hearing.

At least one executive and one non-executive board members told committee that they resigned to retain their sanity, Hlaudi was driving everyone mad, and given free rein by very powerful forces on which the corporation and all its institutional and legislative infrastructure had no bearing.

In our case at least one Communications CEO/PS under an LCD government and one Gender and Sports CEO/PS under the first coalition government tried to bully and defy the Public Accounts Committee, but were reined in. Two ministers defied Ombudsman summons on block farming under LCD. The ANC Youth League in the president’s KwaZulu-Natal homeland are now calling for Hlaudi’s inclusion in ANC’s 1917 executive and next government, to continue his wonderful work and shame jealous detractors. He told their recent rally he could “change South Africa in three months”, that South Africa was talking about him, not the diploma and degree holders he had beaten hands-down, because they didn’t have any stories to tell; and that the Bible was referring to his likes when it said a man who would change the world would not emerge from the contemporary heroes but his origins wouldn’t yet be announced. “I am still at the SABC, nobody can remove me there, but I don’t need a Matric or a title to be there, to bring change”. The parallels noted in this survey of developments are both fascinating and harrowing. Common to them is a Congress style of harnessing the state for nepotism, pampering of sycophants, and Messiahnic claim of the cloak of liberation giver to prosecute the same, from here to Zim, perhaps.


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