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Streetwise Hlaudi has all the answers at SABC

Hlaudi Motsoeneng's office is overcrowded the morning I arrive for our interview at the SABC's head office in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. It's not because he has too many workers in his office; it's a long queue of people who have come to see him.

For a moment the tiny office on the 27th floor of SABC Radio Park could be mistaken for a reception at a public hospital or home affairs offices.

Some are sitting in his secretary's office while many others are hanging around the corridor waiting their turn.

When Motsoeneng finally emerges from the bowels of his work station, I ask him what is everyone doing here.

"Running the SABC is like running a hospital because it is a 24-hour operation and like a hospital you need to know what is happening," he says.

"I have an open-door policy and to run an organisation properly one has to interact with all the workers. I have to know the conditions under which they operate."

Softly spoken, Motsoeneng says one advantage he has is that he grew up in the SABC after joining the corporation in 1989.

He was a freelance sports presenter on TV, a position in which he says he did not last after some senior managers realised his talent and moved him to Radio Sesotho, now Lesedi FM, where he was part of the current affairs team.

Motsoeneng says his has been a journey that has always been bumpy. It is no different today that he is the chief operations officer.

Not one to stay out of the news headlines for long, Motsoeneng was back in the limelight two weeks ago when news broke that the SABC has banned live calls on talkshows ahead of the local government elections. The move is viewed in some quarters as a ploy to shield the governing ANC from criticism.

Motsoeneng was recently found not guilty by SABC's disciplinary committee after he was charged with gross dishonesty, gross misconduct and abuse of power.

Also read: Angry Hlaudi Motsoeneng fires Pearl Thusi - report

The charges relate to his alleged lying about his matric qualification, unilaterally increasing salaries and creating a new position for a staff member. The DA is unhappy with the ruling but he says he is focusing on his work and will leave the DA to do the politicking.

"I am not a COO who drinks coffee and goes to meetings. I get involved, I make sure the environment is conducive for everyone to operate."

Motsoeneng says his management style helps to make people stay level-headed as opposed to being bigheaded just because they hold powerful positions.

His strategy has helped him to intervene across the board, from saving sports presenter Robert Marawa from the chop at Metro FM to making all channels and radio stations share strategies and having a positive balance sheet.

Also read: DA has no right to interfere – SABC

Motsoeneng says when he took over as COO the public broadcaster was under a tight budget and he had to put together a strategy to turn things around.

For instance, units such as sports and news did not share strategy, while the commercial division did not know what other units were all about.

"I put them together, came up with one strategy and now they are all working well together."

Motsoeneng is quite aware that there are people unhappy with the position he holds because he does not have formal qualifications. He says his motto is not to concentrate on what people say about him.

"People will talk. They have interest in me because I am doing something good. If I was useless they would not be talking, saying when he took over the SABC had R200-million in its bank account and today it has more than R1-billion."

He says the public broadcaster used to focus on getting sponsorship but he introduced it to profitable partnerships.

For instance, it could not afford to pay for the Premier Soccer League broadcasting rights and he reached a deal with the PSL that it would get airtime but the SABC would control the editorial.

He says the SABC also could not afford to pay for Afcon rights and he got R65-million from the sports department to cover that. He says the partnerships are not about making money but to cover costs for the public broadcaster.

"I have a problem when people want SABC to make money because we are a non-profit organisation."

Motsoeneng says last year it was said the corporation lost R300-million; he says it was not a loss at all.

"We had to broadcast the funeral of late Nelson Mandela and we spent more than R100-million.

"We fulfilled the public mandate. We need to go to treasury and ask for exemption so when they report it is not a loss," he reasons.

Motsoeneng is clear that he cannot run the SABC as a business like former CEO Peter Matlare.

"When we came in we decided that we will broadcast projects of national interest.

"We will disrupt scheduled programmes if there are big announcements like the reshuffle of cabinet.

"When we do that we lose revenue but it has to be done."

Motsoeneng is adamant he has done a lot for SABC, including securing rights with other broadcasters or companies when there was no money.

"In my life I have been a negotiator. I have expertise and skill. I charm many investors. If I talk they believe me. I do not remember where I was part of the negotiations and I did not win."

He says he can influence people to believe in what he tells them.

Motsoeneng, who hails from QwaQwa in Free State, says he is glad he once lived on the streets as that helped him develop the skill to fend for himself.

He says had he been raised by parents looking after him "maybe today I would be somewhere very low".

"I grew up as a streetkid. I only [got to] know my mother when I appeared on TV in 1989 and someone said to her that is your son on TV.

"That's when we met."

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