SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng overruled his staff to push through a R167-million contract with a production company co-owned by President Jacob Zuma’s daughter Gugu Zuma-Ncube.
The chief operating officer reversed a recommendation by a review panel of six members, who had decided not to renew the popular Uzalo drama series for a second season.
Their concerns were that there was no proper business plan, the budget was “about 10 times that of a 13-part series” and there had been problems during the show’s first season with “writing, aesthetics and delivery”. It was originally bought as a limited-season “telenovela and that format ends at some stage, it’s not a soap”.
But when Motsoeneng heard about the decision, he stepped in and the three-year contract was “negotiated and signed off” within a week.
News of Motsoeneng’s intervention comes amid a growing backlash against him following his decision that violent protests should not be covered on SABC news programmes, and allegations of political interference.
This week, several foundations called for a judicial commission of inquiry into the public broadcaster. They included the Chief Albert Luthuli, Desmond and Leah Tutu, Robert Sobukwe, Helen Suzman, FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki foundations.
The SABC is also facing a cash crisis and is negotiating loans of R1.5-billion as its reserves sink. One of the reasons given by insiders for the cash crunch is increased programming costs.
But the SABC was unfazed this week by the latest controversy.
“The SABC can confirm that the COO overruled the decision not to renew Uzalo, based on performance in its genre and growth in revenue,” said spokesman Kaizer Kganyago.
But a respected TV producer said he was told by SABC staff members that Uzalo had become “a political tool at the SABC and that everyone was told it was a product of the president’s daughter and that they must find money for it”.
It airs three times a week on SABC1.
The SABC paid R50.5-million for the first season of Uzalo. The review panel met in April last year to discuss a proposal by Stained Glass Productions, which is owned by Zuma-Ncube and Kobedi “Pepsi” Pokane, to extend the contract for a further three years, at a cost of R167-million.
The deal involves four seasons of the drama a year, with each season comprising 13 episodes. Season two began in February this year.
One of the panel members, who asked not to be named, said: “Someone told Gugu we were not going torecommission Uzalo for the second season and apparently she and Pepsi went to Hlaudi to complain about our decision. The next thing we heard was that our decision not to recommission was overruled from above.”
Kganyago added: “The COO meets from time to time with production houses and all other stakeholders to address various issues. The SABC does not discuss its contractual matters in the public space.”
An internal e-mail seen by the Sunday Times says that “at over R167-million this business plan would have to be signed by the board” and “one would imagine that this kind of budget would face the same fate as other business plans with smaller budgets sitting with GM TV finance office i.e. not getting signed”.
Another SABC staff member said: “Everything was put on hold to channel their budget to Uzalo. The SABC could produce about 20 programmes with R167-million.”
An industry insider said: “The average cost of a drama at SABC is R5-million. The average cost of a soap like Generations is about R80-million a year – and it is shown five nights a week and Uzalo is only shown three times a week.”
Approached for comment, Zuma-Ncube referred queries to Pokane.
Pokane said the SABC had offered Stained Glass Productions a three-year deal, but would not confirm it was for R167-million. “You would have to direct any questions about the SABC’s budgeting to the corporation itself,” he said.
He denied that he and Zuma-Ncube had complained to Motsoeneng when they heard Uzalo was not going to be recommissioned. “We received a letter of intent to recommission. Therefore, there was no need to complain to anyone.
As I’m sure you’re aware, all manner of SABC producers and presenters meet with Mr Motsoeneng. No one gets special meeting privileges.”
Four of the review panel members – Clara Nzima, Maretha Bakkes, Vanessa Jansen and Reneilwe Sema – refused to comment this week.
This is not the first time Uzalo funding has caused controversy. The eThekwini municipality funded Stained Glass Productions with R5-million last year amid protests from the opposition.
This was after the company threatened to relocate filming from KwaZulu-Natal to Johannesburg in June last year unless the municipality gave it R11.5-million.
The municipality added a further R3.5-million in February.