Namibia: digitalization at NBC

Investment

The Director General of the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) Albertus Aochamub speaks about the life at Cullinan Street, his plans for the broadcaster and why he welcomed with open arms the N$90 000 given to him as performance bonus last year.

New Era: You inherited an organization hit by financial and other problems. How has the situation been since your takeover?

AA: "Let's look at the key problems that we had here. If you look at our obligations and mandate, we've had the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) that the institution could not cover. For three years or so, we deducted money from people's accounts and then we didn't pass on to the state.

"On the operational side, we were N$32 million in the red. We've had serious deficit upon my takeover in August 2010. We didn't have a pleasant situation. We have inherited, in terms of people issues, a whole range of general unhappiness.

"It was a whole range of issues and therefore industrial peace did not exist. There was serious discontent between the board and management until the current board came in May 2010. What did we do differently to begin to go forward? We had to park egos. This institution is not about the Director-General or the chairperson of the board. It is a public service institution that has to create space for our citizens to be heard and hear themselves and we had completely lost that focus. The new board was united in what they believed must happen.

"For the first time, the board gave clear instructions to the Director-General on targets to chart out what is due to me as performance target. If I don't reach the targets, there is no question about paying for performance. As we speak, now everybody gets what is prescribed in law as the minimum and then the performance bonus is a function of you achieving the targets or not. That has helped us focus the business on the things that matter and not personal issues and pursuing other people's agendas that have nothing to do with the institution.

"We have come up with a new strategy that after every board meeting, the chairman briefs staff at a staff meeting on decisions and resolutions taken by the board. Even in the private sector, you do not have such a culture. But we are saying this business is about people that work here. They should not only hear things about NBC in the printing press. We are of course far from perfect, but I think we have started on the right track.

"We have a cordial relationship with the labour unions and the shop stewards council. The other thing that everybody has written about which, truth be told, I have found to one of those big myths about this place is political interference. It is an overrated and overwritten myth. When a politician calls and expresses his opinion, in the same manner that any citizen will call us about a story that we have covered or not covered, it cannot necessarily constitute interference.

"By virtue of what we do, people have opinions. Why should parliamentarians who vote the budget of this institution not be allowed to air their views? Why can Cabinet which allocates money to this institution not be allowed to express their views about this institution? Yes, the opposition parties have their views and we listen.

The ruling party too has its views and we listen. Are those instructions to do this one way or the other? I don't think they are. Are some views stronger than others? Of course they are. Are some people powerful in society by virtue of certain issues? Of course they are. It is how you build relationships with those people that should matter.

"In short, what I am saying is: yes we had tremendous challenges that we have taken over but we have started to move into the direction that we want. We have so far concluded successfully the appointment of our top managers from nine to five. Our Chief Technology Officer is starting in February and that will mean all our top positions will be filled. This week, we will conclude filling our middle-management positions. After that, we will then all start the real work. All the managers are appointed on a five-year contract and the reasoning for this is simple. Institutions of this nature need to reinvent and regenerate themselves.

"At the end of the five years, we will evaluate your performance and only reappoint you on merit and not because you've been here for 20 years and now you have become part of the furniture. From top to middle management, there will be no more automatic salary increments. We have implemented performance bonuses for our managers and this will only be paid to those who have hit their stipulated targets."

NE: Speaking of performance bonuses, you got N$90,000 last year which attracted a lot of media attention. How do you justify that payment?

AA: "In fact they should have made it N$900,000 (laughing). I missed some targets. What was unfortunate is that nobody dared to ask me. Not one reporter has called me. Those that have asked eventually only did so after the story was already published. I could have gone for the business-as-usual thing where I just get paid whether I perform or not. The contract that I entered with NBC clearly stipulates that there shall be performance targets set at the beginning of the financial year, against which the bonus would be paid and that is all. This is expected in terms of the State-Owned Enterprises Governance Framework that CEOs should not be given huge salaries but they must be rewarded for performance.

"Now that we have done what is stipulated in that framework, apparently NBC has gone against the law. The argument presented was that the institution was not making money. But what we failed to ask was whether the institution moved against the targets that the board has set. Yes it has. "

NE: Matthew Gowaseb was credited with much of the transformation seen at the NBC. Would you say his spell here has made your work a bit easier?

AA: "Matthew, in his own rights, deserves the accolades of his achievements. One should never diminish the value of contributions that people have made. I called Matthew as early as yesterday (Monday) to share ideas on things that he's been thinking and that he could not finish at the time of his departure. Matthew has done a lot and we must all acknowledge his achievements. I can't come here and try to be a star. Instead, I have started off exactly where he left off.

"The graphics and pictures have gone digital and that's progress. But did it make my work easier? I am not too sure because people got used to the new way of doing things and it is my job to maintain the consistency. If you look at the record of Bob Kandetu on how he did things in some spheres of business, there were a lot of positive things done. We can therefore say we have inherited both the good and the bad."

NE: You have brought in five new senior managers in your bid to cut these positions from nine to five, yet the nine former general managers are still with the NBC. Is this not adding even more of a financial burden on the corporation than before?

AA: "There were two choices. Either you ring radical changes and leave everybody behind or you opt for an implemental change and carry people along, slowly. We've chosen the latter. In the coming months you'll see us making announcements around what happens, what people are deployed where as part of restructuring. I don't think it's fair to comment on the status of individuals that are affected by this, except to say that all that we are doing is for the business and not because of hidden agendas or anything personal. Our overriding concern is to leave this organization in a better shape than we found it, whatever and however painful it would be to get there."

NE: Fairly speaking, the NBC is not a commercial broadcaster but how would you describe the current state of financial affairs of the corporation?

AA: "Quite frankly, we have always been and still are under-funded. You are right that we are a public broadcaster. Many people are quick to criticize when we are unable to cover some events or accompany government officials on trips. We cannot afford it. You can't say the thing must work when you are carrying the burden of the past, even when you were not responsible for it. Secondly, I can tell you that on all the key indicators, whether it's advertisements or TV licences, we are currently on an upward swing because of the efforts that we have put in. But this will make little sense when the burden of the past is on us. When politicians begin to understand that, I think it will be helpful. It's not that anyone does not understand this.

"The President is very clear and he understands that if we are providing the service that is critical to all Namibians, this would not come for free. The Prime Minister too understands that. What unfortunately did not happen is transforming this understanding into the budget put forward. I don't think I am breaking any protocol to reveal that some ministries, at least two of them, including the Office of the President have made provisions where our reporters join them on foreign trips at their expense and we only pay for S&T. That helps us to cover stories for the nation. These trips are not taken for pleasure. This is an execution of national duties. We have the obligation to tell their stories. But if we cannot afford to send our reporters on those trips, we are missing out on stories.

"On the capital expenditure side, we have had the good fortune that government knows we need to have infrastructure in place carrying the message to all Namibians. Now that we have started with the digitalization road, its's not gonna be cheap, but its not a matter where the country has a choice. You either go digital or come 2016, we'll be the only island in the world which will not offer digital TV signals to our citizens. Government understands that and will make money available for this to take off."

NE: The opposition and local human rights groups have often accused the NBC of being biased towards Swapo.

AA: "If you saw the last elections, the regional and local authority elections that was the test of whether there was any truth in those allegations. No single political party has written to us formally to launch a complaint of that sort. If they complain and are doing this under trees, there is unfortunately nothing I can do about that. I've been here for a year and a half and during my stay here, I did not receive any request for any audience from any political party or any NGO about this subject. Leading into those elections, we have actually gone at length to request parties to give us their programs of where their campaign activities will be so that we can cover those events. Swapo was better prepared and gave us their program ahead of schedule.

"The rest would tell us at the last minute and yet we have made every effort to cover those events whenever we could. Are those sentiments therefore well founded? I am very doubtful. With regard to our One-on-One program, we got criticized that we were too kind to Hidipo (Hamutenya). Nobody criticized the fact that we brought him on the show. We were accused of having been 'too nice' to him."

NE: Some leaders of the local State-owned media houses, including yourself, have been accused of being in 'camps' of some of the aspiring Swapo presidential candidates. What's your reaction to this?

AA: "When we go to the ballot box, we all have the right to vote as we choose. That is a constitutional provision and that is something that we fought for. Do I therefore come to office and exercise those biases in the execution of my mandate? No. Those that are making these allegations must not just say this in the dark. Be brave and bold and come say that in our face and I'll show you facts to the contrary. What I know, as a card-carrying member of Swapo Party, and this was not the criteria for which I was employed here, is that Swapo has only one camp. We have one president, one central committee and one politburo. Whoever is talking of camps, I am not aware of any. Apparently, I was placed here by one leader or the other leader of this or that camp. It is an insult to the board that appointed me because you are insinuating that it comprises of empty vessels. It also insults the minister who recommended my appointment to Cabinet and it is also an insult to Cabinet, who gave the board the green light. Because with that you are insinuating that there's one strong person out there who controls all these institutions."