"James Who?" I wondered as the acting South African Broadcast Corporation (SABC) CEO James Aguma blundered through his presentation before Parliament's public accounts standing committee on Wednesday. National Assembly members across all parties looked like they wanted to call the parliamentary muscle, the white shirts, to deal with him as he dropped stacks of documents with them at the eleventh hour and then proceeded to speak to parliamentarians like they were eighth graders. Where did we find this executive with almost zero understanding of financial accounts or of public broadcasting?
The answer: the acting SABC Who-Knows-What Hlaudi Motsoeneng (his title keeps changing every time there is a judgment against him) plucked Aguma from obscurity to ensure he could continue to pull the broadcaster's strings.
Across the public sphere, no-name brand executives are running amok when South Africa's brimming with talent.
In broadcasting where mobile convergence is happening very quickly, imagine if we had a Romeo Khumalo (former broadcasting and telecommunications business leader) running the SABC. He would quickly pimp the powerhouse public company into all it can be. Or Clarissa Mack, currently Multichoice's highly regarded head of regulation and who has the finest pedigree in the entire spectrum from broadcasting to telecommunications? Or Tim Modise, the broadcaster who made talk radio what it is and who burnt up the airwaves as the first generation of rock-star DJ's groomed by the SABC?
Instead, a no-name brand team is running the SABC into the ground when it should be a jewel in our media crown. Had you heard of the recently departed SABC board chairperson Professor Mbulaheni Maghuve? Almost nobody had, until Motsoeneng had him appointed to the board. He will go down in the annals not for getting Auckland Park back on track but for insisting his board was quorate -- even though he was the only member on it.
I listen to and watch SABC news because, after eight journalists there took on Motsoeneng's censorious way and won, its editing team is returned to excellence.
Especially on radio, you get a news agenda unsurpassed by more popular platforms. It takes you into the nooks and crannies of our country because the broadcaster still has the biggest reach. There are proficient and award-winning broadcasters at the SABC like Thandeka Gqubule, Ashraf Garda, Melini Moses, Lukhanyo Calata, Joseph Mosia, Krivani Pillay, Angie Kapelianis, Leeanne Manas, Francis Herd and Peter Ndoro among scores more who deserve executive leaders as good as they are at public broadcasting.
Programmes like "Muvhango", "Generations", "Skeem Saam" and a host of other daily favourites take the nation's pulse and delight South African viewers. The listenership of Ukhozi F.M. dwarfs by millions most other radio stations other than the hit-makers like 5fm and Metro F.M., which are also in the broadcaster's fold.
As a national jewel, the SABC has not been in the best hands: it has had 12 bosses since 2008, William Bird, the director of Media Monitoring Africa told Parliament's ad hoc committee probing the broadcaster last year. That's more than one a year and it is wildly unstable for any organisation but especially so for an institution that remains, by a wide mile, the most important source of news, information and broadcasting joy for most South Africans.
It's neither here nor there whether the hapless Communications Minister Faith Muthambi is recommended for the scalp or not by the parliamentary inquiry into the SABC. What matters more is that a leadership is put in place that is befitting of an organisation that should be the cultural marker of South Africa's spirit and the nation's news pacesetter.