South Africa

Reporter’s parliamentary notebook: Waiting for the SABC’s interim board

By Marianne Merten 7 March 2017

The National Assembly on Tuesday adopted the hard-hitting report of the parliamentary inquiry into the SABC that recommends an interim board must implement, among other things, forensic audits, governance checks and measures to ensure editorial independence. But the next step of parliamentary oversight is lagging behind – that of finalising the five-strong interim SABC board. At the meeting of the communications committee earlier on Tuesday it emerged that the House was scheduled to debate that matter next Wednesday. This looming deadline finally appears to have galvanised the communications committee into action to whittle down the 17 names submitted last week to the required five. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

The SABC interim board wasn’t on Tuesday’s official agenda of the communications committee, which for hours was taken through the Films and Publications Amendment Bill. The matter of the interim SABC board was raised by chairperson Humphrey Maxegwana at 13:00, asking whether there had been progress in political consultations since last week when political parties proposed a total of 17 names for the five board positions.

ANC MP Mziwamadoda Kalako said the party had whittled down the names to five. The DA’s MP Veronica van Dyk was caught off-guard and there were no representatives from other, smaller parties present.

We are ready to finalise it today,” said Kalako. But there is the matter of due consultations despite the time crunch, as well as parliamentary rules. And so Maxegwana announced a committee this week rather than next Tuesday as initially proposed to finalise the names, with “voting as the last resort”.

Parliamentary rules require a three-day period between a committee report being published in the Announcements, Tablings and Committee Reports (ATC), the work record of Parliament, and the matter being dealt with in the House. Of course, there are exceptions to rules: there could have been a motion doing away with the three-day rule, or the interim SABC board matter could have been postponed in the House.

It is understood that the communications committee would try to meet Wednesday to deliberate on the names for the SABC interim board. DA MP Natasha Mazzone said those appointments could not be rushed and “must go through due process” to prevent a repeat of the troubles at the public broadcaster.

Daily Maverick understands that the five names the ANC has agreed on include:

  • Former board member Krish Naidoo, who resigned in October 2016 amid the deepening controversy over the public broadcaster;
  • Febe Potgieter-Gqubule, who served as deputy chief of staff for former African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma;
  • Khanyisile Kweyama, the Business Unity South Africa boss;
  • Former editor and South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) executive director Mathatha Tsedu, who is understood also to be supported by the EFF; and
  • The DA-proposed candidate Michael Markovitz, one-time adviser to former Independent Communications Commission of South Africa (Icasa) chair Mandla Langa and member of Save Our SABC (SOS).

However, the lack of urgency in finalising the interim SABC board – once the House adopts the candidates, their names are forwarded to the president for official appointment for a period of six months – is baffling.

There has not been a board since the December resignation of the last remaining non-executive member, Mbulaheni Maguvhe. Also, the ad hoc committee’s inquiry into the SABC has been publicly available for a week. And that report bluntly fingered the Parliament in the public broadcaster’s troubles.

The committee acknowledges that Parliament may have relinquished its constitutional duty to hold the executive and consecutive SABC boards to account. This may have rendered Parliament complicit in the gradual decline of good governance, accountability and commitment to public broadcasting at the SABC,” says the report.

The cross-party political wish for the interim SABC board to hit the ground running to resolve the financial, governance and management troubles at the public broadcaster emerged again during Tuesday’s debate on the parliamentary inquiry report.

While some recommendations are left to Parliament’s ethics committee and the Presidency – they must deal with political interference by Communications Minister Faith Muthambi – the inquiry report asks President Jacob Zuma to “seriously reconsider the desirability of this particular minister retaining the communications portfolio”.

But it is the interim SABC board that must drive the clean-up of, among other things, the R5.1-billion irregular expenditure by the public broadcaster, which its acting Chief Executive Officer James Aguma last week tried to explain away as “historic”. However, Aguma also told MPs of Parliament’s watchdog on government expenditure, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), that the SABC recorded a R411-million loss for the 2015/16 financial year as cash balances dropped to R881-million, from R1.017-billion.

Governance issues, and parliamentary oversight, were also front and centre of Scopa’s meeting on Tuesday with Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini on the controversial negotiations with grant payment service provider, Cash Paymaster Services. But if answers were expected, Dlamini deflected, sidestepped and evaded.

IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa asked how the minister’s comments on radical economic transformation were served by negotiating another contract with CPS, a white-owned, foreign-registered company declared invalid by the Constitutional Court. In April 2014 that court ruled the contract “constitutionally invalid” because black economic empowerment requirements were not verified.

Dlamini responded: “We never had that programme (radical economic transformation) then. In the coming tender process that is where we are going to go.”

If Dlamini’s appearance before Scopa was aimed to end the controversy, it might not quite play out that way, particularly as the committee has asked the finance ministry to give its view.

We are… very worried about how things got to this stage and how processes have been managed. We trust that whatever agreement will be reached on the matter will be within the confines of the law,” said ANC MP Nyami Booi for the party’s Scopa parliamentary study group. “This social grant matter presents government with an opportunity to utilise its existing state institutions such as the South African Post Office to carry out such functions in the future.”

The impact of grants on ensuring 17-million vulnerable South Africans do not sink deeper into poverty, and on the economy, emerges also in Nomura economist Peter Attard Montalto’s recent assessment: the total monthly grant payments constitute 3.2% of gross domestic product (GDP), and 11.6% of retail sales.

So aside from fundamental political reasons by the ANC government to ensure the grants are paid – the grants would be paid no matter what, according to various ministers’ public statements over the past few days – there are also fundamental economic considerations.

That South Africa remains in economically difficult times emerged on Tuesday when Statistics South Africa released the latest GDP figures. Overall, GDP grew by just 0.3% in 2016, down from 1.3% in 2015. Mining and agriculture remain in depressed terrain – although the recent good rains may reverse negative trends – while tertiary sectors like the finance and services sectors have recorded growth, according to Statistics South Africa Chief Director: National Accounts, Michael Manamela.

This already difficult year, 2017 – the year of the ANC national elective conference in December – is unfolding a heady mix of governance accountability, government expenditure, tough economic times and politicking. And Parliament is set to find itself at the centre of this. DM