South Africa
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'I'm being hounded out': Phathiswa Magopeni lodges complaint against SABC CEO, board chair

SABC editor-in-chief and head of news Phathiswa Magopeni has lodged a formal complaint against the public broadcaster's CEO Madoda Mxakwe for several issues, including alleged editorial interference, abuse of power and attempts to remove her from her position.

Her complaint comes just days after TimesLIVE reported that Magopeni was being charged with negligence and bringing the SABC into disrepute after investigative news programme Special Assignment aired an episode the SABC had been interdicted from broadcasting. 

Magopeni accuses Mxakwe, in her complaint to the SABC board, of using the Special Assignment issue to “destroy” and “hound” her out of the public broadcaster.

She has also laid a similar complaint against the SABC board chairperson Bongumusa Makhathini.

The drama unfolds just weeks before Magopeni is expected to appear before an SABC disciplinary committee in December.

In the nine-page letter TimesLIVE has seen, Magopeni paints a grim picture of how the public broadcaster's CEO and board chairperson tried to force her to approve an unscheduled interview with ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa in the run-up to the elections.

Her refusal, she claims, and the preceding complaints from the ANC about how the SABC covered its election campaign could be the reason there is an attempt to place the blame on her for the Special Assignment error and ultimately remove her from the SABC.

She details how Mxakwe specifically flouted administrative processes to ensure she took the fall for the erroneous airing of the Special Assignment episode.

She says Mxakwe's decision to copy human resources group executive Dr Mojaki when he asked her to explain how the episode went on air was a further indication of this, as her explanation was meant to assist the legal division, since the matter related to contravening a court order.

“His doggedness to use the Special Assignment incident against me was blatant right from the start even before I could submit the report he had asked for,” Magopeni says in the letter dated November 29.

She continues to relay instances where Mxakwe's intentions became clear, including a time, she claims, when Mxakwe refused to include, in a meeting a day after the episode was aired on October 26, executives who would have been responsible for overseeing what goes on air.

Then, according to her, the board chairperson Makhathini joined the furore through a phone call, in which he asked what she had done about the Ramaphosa interview since the call made by Mxakwe.

“I said I had done nothing because it would have been an editorial transgression. He went as far as saying the ANC president was in his final leg of the campaign and would be making his way to the SABC afterwards.

“I asked him what he was coming to do, as news had no scheduled interview with him, and there was no preparation for such by editors.

“He asked me if the president would have to leave the SABC without doing the interview. I emphatically said from a news point of view, yes, because no editor had knowledge of that interview and it would be a breach of editorial transparency in our newsroom processes,” she said.

Magopeni claims another incident of editorial overreach on the part of Makhathini was in May, when he called her about the SABC coverage of the succession battle in the Zulu royal family.

She says he told her there was a court battle taking place and that the other side of the family contesting the throne had to be heard.

She says Makhathini went as far as sending her a white envelope containing the court papers through a security guard who gave them to her in the parking.

Magopeni has also detailed other instances that pointed to alleged abuse of power by the CEO and board chairperson.

She has also claimed that the SABC newsroom has been gagged on reporting on her charges and impending disciplinary hearing. She says the public broadcaster has made it impossible to report on the matter as questions sent to the spokesperson are met with a “no comment”, while information is being shared with other media publications. 

Magopeni says she is also being silenced from speaking out on her charges.

“It is my considered view that there is a concerted effort by Mr Mxakwe to push me out of the SABC with the assistance of group HR, using the Special Assignment matter,” she says in conclusion.

“With the public political statements being made about me having affected the electoral prospects of the ruling party, I feel extremely unsafe and I fear for my life. I cannot keep quiet.”

TimesLIVE

“Mr Mxakwe unequivocally rejected my suggested expressing that there was no need for him as he had nothing to do with the issue, and that I was the one responsible. This was the clearest indication of the outcome being predetermined. I was the intended target and there was no other person to be considered,” she says.

She says it is clear that Mxakwe was steadfast on “hounding” her out of the SABC “for reasons only known to him”.

“There are three management levels below me that would have dealt with this Special Assignment matter, but in Mr Mxakwe’s haste to get rid of me he overlooked that and chose to flout administrative governance,” she says.

Magopeni accuses both Mxakwe and Makhathini of editorial interference for allegedly exerting pressure on her for an interview with Ramaphosa during his campaign trail in Limpopo.

She claims that the duo called her on October 24 telling her about a request for a radio interview with Ramaphosa from ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe.

According to Magopeni, the initial call came from Mxakwe, to which she objected, as SABC editorial processes did not allow for special coverage of the ANC president, as this would have “made a mockery” of the public broadcaster.

“The calls I received from Mr Mxakwe went beyond seeking clarity about why the interview could not be done. He was putting undue pressure on me to co-ordinate that the interview be done, despite this falling outside the news division’s editorial processes and being outright interference. I refused.

“He even mentioned having spoken to the minister ... about the issue, which I found bizarre because this was an editorial matter. I kept explaining why this was wrong and in violation of the prescribed editorial processes.”