South Africa

Politics, South Africa

Reporter’s notebook: State Security agency’s campaign of fear and intimidation at SABC, and more

Reporter’s notebook: State Security agency’s campaign of fear and intimidation at SABC, and more

Serious concerns over the “clandestine nature” of State Security Agency (SSA) activities in policy and “non-sensitive operational” issues at the SABC are among a stack of written submissions filed with Parliament’s ad hoc committee on the troubled SABC. These submissions have yet to be considered as MPs, who, over the past two days ploughed clause by clause through its working document that found that the SABC board had failed in its fiduciary and governance responsibilities, leaving the public broadcaster with R5.1-billion in irregular expenditure amid political interference. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

The State Security Agency played a role in what was described as a climate of fear and intimidation at the SABC during testimony before Parliament’s ad hoc committee. This was reiterated on Friday, when at least one governing party MP pointed to the “misplaced” role of the SSA at the public broadcaster, focusing on lower level employees rather than its mandate of vetting.

The committee’s working document, subject to deliberations and changes before a final report is adopted by the National Assembly, recommends the SABC “should revisit the reasons and acceptability for the involvement of the… SSA. The task of vetting of senior employees of the SABC must be fast-tracked”.

But in its written submission the Right2Know Campaign (R2K) calls for a full investigation into the role of the SSA at the public broadcaster. Made public last week, subsequent to its testimony before the committee, R2K points out the SABC managers effectively “handed over control of governance to the state security structures”.

This included changing managerial employment contracts so employees agree to interception and monitoring of e-mails, telephone conversations and stored documents, and the 2015 SSA “raid” on the Durban SABC offices.

The clandestine nature of state-security activities, and the extreme lack of transparency of the State Security Agency even in matters of overall policy and non-sensitive operational activities, has undermined public understanding and oversight of this issue. Similarly, the lack of candour from SABC’s leadership means that the full picture of exactly what was taking place at the SABC has yet to be fully understood,” says the R2K submission.

It is not the only written addition to the often heated and at times controversial parliamentary inquiry. Others who wrote to the committee include Yunus Carrim, a former communications minister sent back to Parliament as MP after the May 2014 elections, and former SABC board chairperson Zandile Ellen Tshabalala.

While MPs have yet to turn their attention to the additional written submissions, the committee on Friday agreed Tshabalala would be asked to instead submit a sworn affidavit. Described as “a hazy witness”, MPs across the political divide highlighted her testimony as contradictory and generally unsatisfactory, and agreed for this reason that an affidavit was needed.

A draft report, polished in deliberations that will continue on Tuesday, is expected to be finalised by Thursday so it can be sent to affected parties, who have until February 16 to comment. It remains unclear how the written submissions received so far – and the deadline of February 9 appears not to have shifted – will be dealt with. However, the comments from affected parties will be processed on February 21 so a final report can be adopted by the committee on February 22. The deadline for adoption in the National Assembly is February 28.

It’s an ambitious timeline. But then the SABC inquiry has been an ambitious mop up of the parliamentary communication committee’s dilly-dallying and flip-flops over the troubles at the SABC. While in 2014 it decisively recommended the dismissal of Tshabalala for misrepresenting her qualifications – she eventually resigned in December 2014, rather than being sacked by the president, who appoints and dismisses SABC board members under the Broadcasting Act – this determination petered out in the factional battles in the ANC over the public broadcaster.

Between May and June 2015 the communications committee reversed its own decision that the removal of three board members under the Companies Act was unlawful. A total of six vacancies on the 12-strong SABC non-executive board positions were left vacant for almost two years. Yet the communications committee prepared to consider amendments to the Broadcasting Act, submitted by Communications Minister Faith Muthambi, to effectively remove MPs’ oversight over the SABC and role in the appointment of its board.

Matters came to a head in the run-up to the August 2016 local government elections amid a public outcry over the SABC’s ban of visuals of burnt schools in Limpopo. Successfully challenged before the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), the SABC sidestepped the regulator’s order to reverse the ban.

Parliament’s communications committee came out in favour of the SABC and Muthambi. “There is no need for an inquiry into the South African Broadcasting Corporation,” the communications committee said in a public statement on August 23, 2016 after meeting the minister and SABC senior managers. “The committee welcomes the explanations provided and has committed itself to continuous engagement with the SABC. The committee welcomes the assurance by the Minister of Communications that the SABC remains a going concern that is in line to deliver on its public mandate…” said the communications committee.

But the parliamentary inquiry was launched late in 2016 with MPs in the past two days’ deliberations describing their ad hoc committee’s task “to contribute to the stop in the decline of the SABC” or “to fix a state owned entity steeped in rot”. Draft observations now are under deliberation are damning as are its recommendations, including investigations into financial maladministration, ensuring a return to good governance and editorial independence at the public broadcaster. The draft recommendations agreed to on Friday also include a forensic probe of the controversial SABC MultiChoice deal linking access to the public broadcaster’s archives to access on the pay-television platform.

Central to these recommendations is a new interim SABC board, which will have to implement these investigations. But that interim board, which can legally sit for six months before a permanent board is in place, must yet be appointed in a parallel process by the communications committee. The process of nomination, selection and appointment starts next week. It remains to be seen whether the political sea change for accountability and transparency will hold. DM

Photo: State Security Minister David Mahlobo (GCIS)


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