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SABC still without a new board as State Security Agency’s vetting of candidates drags on

SABC still without a new board as State Security Agency’s vetting of candidates drags on
The term of the previous SABC board ended on 15 October 2022. A new board has yet to be appointed due to delays in the vetting of candidates by the State Security Agency. (Photo: SABC News / Wikipedia)

A layer of governance at the South African Broadcasting Corporation disappeared when the term of the outgoing board came to an end on 15 October. One month on, the public broadcaster’s highest decision-making body has yet to be replaced, as the State Security Agency continues to vet potential candidates.

It has been just over a month since the five-year term of the previous South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) board came to an end. As yet, no new board has been appointed – this leaves the parastatal with a glaring gap where its accounting authority should be.

The term of the previous board ended on 15 October. The Portfolio Committee on Communications and Digital Technologies is responsible for recommending 12 suitable candidates for President Cyril Ramaphosa to appoint as non-executive members of a new board. 

However, the process has been delayed by the vetting of 34 shortlisted nominees by the State Security Agency (SSA). To date, eight candidates still need to be vetted by the SSA, according to Boyce Maneli, chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Communications.

“What it means is that one layer of [SABC] governance disappeared on 16 October,” explained Michael Markovitz, head of the Gibs Media Leadership think-tank and former SABC board director. 

“Currently, your governance framework is that you have the board – which is the highest decision-making body of the SABC – and it conducts an oversight role of the management of the SABC, and is the accounting authority in terms of the Broadcasting Act and the [Public Finance Management Act].

“On 16 October, that layer disappeared. Therefore, at the moment, there is no oversight from an independent accounting authority.”

A subcommittee for the shortlisting of candidates for the SABC board was established on 6 September, according to Dianne Kohler Barnard, DA MP and shadow minister of communications. By 8 September, 37 out of 120 nominees had been selected for consideration.

“Interview[s] … began the next week for four days, from 13 until 16 September. The committee deliberated a week later, and then the … names went to the SSA. We were only made aware of possible delays in the vetting on 27 September,” she said.

“As you see, the timeline was extremely tight, and did not factor in any possible difficulties or delays.”

The subcommittee only interviewed 34 of the 37 shortlisted candidates, as three withdrew from the selection process.

The SSA has not provided reasons for the delay in vetting, except to say that it is due to “some technical glitches”, according to Maneli.

Daily Maverick reached out to the SSA for more information on the vetting process and why it had stalled. However, spokesperson Mava Scott said vetting was an operational matter that the SSA was “not at liberty to discuss with third parties in terms of the law”.

“… we cannot comment on the details of who we are vetting or not vetting and how long it takes,” she said, “save to say that our vetting systems are in place and are working in terms of what is required in terms of legislation and our mandate as an agency.”


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Cause for concern

In addition to reaching over a third of all South African households with TVs, SABC is the second-largest online news source in the country. It also reaches more than 30 million people on radio in all official languages, according to Markovitz.

“The SABC has a very special role during elections; it has a special role in terms of the sources of information … The way I see it, the independence of the SABC and the stability of the SABC is intricately linked to our constitutional democracy.

“It’s important that you have a strong public broadcaster because you can see around the world that … where there are funded, strong public broadcasters, they have a strong democracy.”

The lack of a board at the SABC represents a huge risk for the public entity, both financially and from a governance perspective, according to William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa.

In the Auditor-General’s section of the SABC Annual Report 2022, irregular expenditure for the public entity was stated at R2.8-million. The broadcaster incurred a net loss of R201-million for the financial reporting period ending 31 March 2022.

“The board should be meeting, especially given the challenges that they have around funding … and taking decisions on a range of key issues. There may well be contracts that may be up for renewal … and if the board isn’t able to sit and agree on those things, then that may have some significant consequences,” he said.

Under the Broadcasting Act, the minimum number of board members who need to be present at any meeting to render proceedings valid is nine, including either the chairperson or the deputy chair. 

Gugu Ntuli, group executive for corporate affairs and marketing at SABC, told Daily Maverick that the public entity was “functional” and continuing to “deliver its important public service mandate”.

“The board plays a critical oversight role for the affairs and interests of the SABC. Equally, the executive directors of the SABC are important in ensuring that the strategic objectives of the public broadcaster are adequately met,” said Ntuli.

“In this regard, all the decisions that were made in the absence of the board are within the scope of work of the appointed executive directors, and the group chief executive officer has not assumed the powers of the board.”

Procedural failure

An interim board has not been appointed for the SABC as, under the Broadcasting Act, this can only take place when the previous board was dissolved due to a failure to perform its role or carry out its duties, according to Uyanda Siyotula, national coordinator at the SOS Coalition, a member-based public broadcasting network that campaigns for democratic media and broadcasting.

“That’s not the case this time around. Parliament knew that this time would come, the board term would expire – they just did not start all the processes well in advance,” said Siyotula.

“I think another issue here is the delay in board appointments … just exposes the incompetence of all these government structures and the SOEs.”

Bird described the ongoing failure to appoint an SABC board as either “deliberate delaying tactics” or a sign of “spectacular levels of incompetence” on the part of the Portfolio Committee on Communications. 

He further questioned the committee’s choice to refer all 34 candidates to the SSA for vetting, rather than just the final 12.

According to the committee, a letter by the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies requesting the initiation of the recruitment process for a new SABC board was referred to it on 30 June.

This was during a National Assembly recess period. However, Maneli fast-tracked the process and the committee put out a call for board nominations on 8 July, 97 days before the end of the old board’s term.

The subsequent vetting of candidates through the SSA was standard procedure given their potential referral for appointment to fiduciary duty in public office, said Maneli. 

The Portfolio Committee on Communications has drawn lessons from past incidents in which recommended candidates were later found to have faced criminal charges or faked their qualifications.

“While the committee is concerned about the lack of a full composition

of the SABC board, it also acknowledges that the vetting process falls outside its control,” he said.

Once SSA vetting is complete, all that is left for the committee to do is deliberate on the performance and suitability of candidates, and make recommendations to the National Assembly.

“The process can be completed in a single meeting,” said Maneli. DM

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