South Africa

SABC: Where to now?

By Khadija Patel 7 March 2013

While confusion reigns in the SABC boardroom after the recent dismissal of the acting Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the fact is that this simply exacerbated the already massive difficulties facing the public broadcaster. Is there a way out of the mess? By KHADIJA PATEL.

The board of the SABC has been beset by yet another crisis, having announced last week that the acting Chief Operating Officer (COO) Hlaudi Motsoeneng had been relieved of his position – and now his replacement has resigned as well.

Little explanation was given for the decision to remove Motsoeneng at the time, and the public broadcaster was hit with a further shock when the COO appointed in his place, Mike Siluma, quit immediately. Then there was an attempt by Deputy Chairman Thami KaPlaatjie to rescind the removal of Motsoeneng – but the rest of the board publicly distanced itself from this action.

Now, there are serious questions around the competence and coherence of leadership in the public broadcaster. Amidst the chaos, there has also been criticism of the SABC’s lack of on-the-ground content from the rest of the world, despite it being one of the best financially resourced broadcasters on the continent. However, it is impossible for content shortfalls to be addressed effectively when the public broadcaster is immersed in a morass of structural and management challenges.

“The SABC is lurching from one controversy to another,” Kate Skinner, a member of the working group of the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, told Daily Maverick.

“It is a system failure,” Skinner said of the current leadership crisis at the public broadcaster. “There are problems and instability at every level [of the SABC].”

The Democratic Alliance’s shadow minister of communications, Marianne Shinn, believes the SABC needs decisive leadership to address this instability.

“We need strong, corporate-minded leadership for the SABC,” she said.

But the chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications, Eric Kholwane, cautions against hastily choosing new leadership.

“We have to be cautious about how we find solutions for the SABC because in the process we may actually find ourselves creating more problems,” Kholwane says.

The SABC is already in a transitional phase after a slew of corporate governance crises that have stymied the organisation since 2007. 

When the National Treasury gave the SABC a R1.47-billion guarantee for the R1-billion loan it took from Nedbank in 2009, there were strings attached. The terms of the guarantee included increasing audience share, boosting television licence revenue and slashing the number of staff members, among others.

And last month SABC deputy chairperson Thami KaPlaatjie warned that despite better financial fortunes in Auckland Park, there was still much to do. “We must not fool ourselves. This doesn’t mean we’ve met all the conditions of the government guarantee,” he said.

There is already a plan in place to turn around the SABC, but the latest rumblings in the boardroom have proven that there is still much amiss with the public broadcaster.

William Bird, Director of Media Monitoring Africa, believes that the solutions for the problems plaguing the SABC are “pretty obvious”.

“Critically, we have to get the corporate structures right. We cannot have a situation where the minister appoints key people [to executive positions]. It just causes two centres of power between the minister and the board. 

“It also muddies the waters with who the board and the senior executives report to,” Bird says. “So getting some simple things fixed in line with good corporate practice would go a long way to resolving the issues.”

Bird believes the mandate of the SABC is another area that must be addressed in order for the broadcaster to be turned around.

“At best it’s fuzzy in the legislation and at worst it causes SABC to operate as a commercial beast with public service tendencies,” he says. “We need to resolve this. For this to happen we need the policy review so we can have a real public broadcaster which citizens work to shape the mandate and can then help parliament hold it accountable.”

The board of the SABC and its oversight structures have also been accused of withholding information from the public.

When acting Chief Operating Officer (COO) Hlaudi Motsoeneng was relieved of his position last week, not much explanation was given for his dismissal.

This lack of transparency in the decisions taken by the board is also a concern expressed by Skinner. She adds that this lack of transparency extends as well to the portfolio committee, and the decisions it takes regarding the broadcaster.

Bird believes it is crucial for the board to communicate effectively.

“Far too often we have no idea [what they are doing] because we have to wait for print media to go and get the stories, and far too often they are met with stony silences and no clarity,” he said.  “We still don’t officially know, as far as I am aware, for example, why the SABC failed to present their turnaround strategy in Parliament recently. We had to rely on print stories.

“There may well have been legitimate reasons, but if they don’t communicate them, we have no idea.”

Will it take an overhaul of the current board of the SABC to get it all right, then?

Kholwane believes the underlying problems need to be addressed instead of opting for the knee-jerk reaction of dissolving the board.

“The easiest thing for people to say is ‘Dissolve the board’,” he said. “But this solution does not deal with the causes of the problems.”

Skinner cautions that the constant upheaval in the SABC boardroom has exacerbated the challenges of executive leadership in Auckland Park. She points out that already, seven of the original 12-member board appointed in 2010 have resigned. She believes the instability has stymied the ability of the board to provide a cohesive leadership. 

Similarly, Bird believes that the appointment of another board now, two years before their term expires, will only see a repeat of the current crisis.

“No, I don’t think dissolving the Board will help at this stage,” he says.

“Dissolving it now is likely to lead to delaying the problem for a few years. We have [to overhaul the] structures to do their job more effectively and hold the SABC to account.

“And we have to fix the corporate governance structures.”

He warns, “If we don’t, we are simply rearranging deck chairs.”

Like them, Shinn also has reservations about an entire new board at the SABC.

“We can’t keep dissolving boards,” she says, adding that the process of appointing a new board is long and laborious and may further exacerbate the SABC’s woes.

“Most of the current board would perform better if they had a strong chairperson,” Shinn says.

She urges the appointment of a chairperson who is politically neutral, with a solid grounding in corporate governance.

To address the current boardroom dilemmas, Bird believes Parliament should have an urgent hearing and set the SABC Board some clear targets and communicate those to them.

The DA is pushing for the board of the SABC to be hauled before the portfolio committee next Tuesday.

That urgency appears to be felt by Minister of Communications, Dina Pule, as well.

In a statement released on Tuesday evening, the Department of Communications said Pule had written to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications asking them urgently to look into the fitness of the SABC Board to remain in office.

The committee’s chairperson, Kholwane, denies receiving such correspondence from the minister.

“We have read about this in some newspapers but there has been no letter to us,” he said.

He argues that many of the problems currently facing the Board should actually have been addressed by Pule and not parliament.

“Some of the issues should have ben picked up by the minister,” he said.

The beginning of the way forward for the SABC appears to lie in clarifying who among the board, the parliamentary oversight committee and the minister is responsible for what. And once each stakeholder knows what exactly they are responsible for, perhaps the broadcaster may be on a more efficient trajectory.

One thing looks obvious, though: The SABC’s chaos simply cannot last forever. One way or another, it will have to be solved.

The problems within the organisation appear to be of gigantic proportions. Even if the political agreement over a more efficient national broadcaster could be reached, the organisation itself appears to be beyond salvation. Time when the TV screens go dark and radio stations turn silent may not be so far in the future. The decades of chaos resulted in a broadcaster with what could possibly be a terminal illness. It would not be surprising if the SA government gets forced, some years from now, to privatise the channels, one per one, possibly starting with 5FM, SAFM, Radio 2000 and SABC 3, in order to secure their continued existence. DM

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