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PUBLIC BROADCASTER OP-ED

Mr President, please follow your mandate and finally appoint the SABC board

Mr President, please follow your mandate and finally appoint the SABC board
Illustrative image | Sources: SABC Building in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Veli Nhlapo) | Communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni. (Photo: Flickr / GCIS) | An electrical substation operated by Eskom. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Imgbin.com | SABC logo. (Image: Wikimedia)

Each day that the President fails to appoint the SABC board, he fails in his public mandate to respect and protect the Constitution.

Here we are again. The SABC is in crisis, one entirely manufactured by Parliament’s portfolio committee on communication and the President of South Africa.

It’s not just the SABC though.

South Africa, it seems, is caught in a crisis spiral where seemingly the only things we are good at are being in crises, and mitigating them. It might be comforting for the government to always operate in a crisis these days, as it seems impossible for it to act without one. See Eskom, for an example.

The problem is that perpetual crises prevent us from moving forward, from seeing possibilities, building institutions and actually addressing causes. Had we, for example, maintained systems and our power stations, and built capacity for power (setting aside what the government and corrupt doorknobs actually did), we wouldn’t be facing the power crisis we have today. So now, instead of being able to focus on how we can all build society, every single entity in South Africa is spending a disproportionate amount of time and resources on making plans to deal with rolling blackouts.

We all know the obvious ways blackouts hurt us, but the longer-term impact on our media is equally devastating. Every time there is a blackout, our media lose an audience. For the SABC, which has to operate as a commercial broadcaster, that means less revenue. Blackouts are killing our broadcasters. It’s now so bad that MultiChoice has had to start special load-shedding channels so people can catch up on the programmes they have missed.

The point is, crises have far-reaching consequences beyond the entity in crisis, and regardless of who is to blame. We know this.

We know it’s easier and less resource intensive to destroy an institution than to rebuild it.

SABC board

That the SABC is facing a crisis is likely unsurprising to many, given how for decades it has lurched from calamity to calamity, with its boards and senior executives changing as fast as the ministers (since May 2009 to present we have had 11 communication ministers – a new one roughly every 14 months).

What makes this current crisis so deeply infuriating is that unlike so many other public bodies, the SABC was experiencing real and significant shifts, the kind that meant that its crises were less massive than those usually associated with institution building. After the low point of 2016 under Hlaudi Motsoeneng, where the SABC sought to censor the coverage of protests and threaten and humiliate journalists both on and off air, a new board was appointed. That board, or at least most of its members, served out its full term.

Just think about that, the board of a crucial public entity served out its full term.

Can anyone think of any other public bodies where the board has served out its full term? Not only did the SABC board serve its full term, its members stood firm (some argue too firm) against multiple efforts by the minister, Parliament and political parties to undermine their independence.

Equally important, the SABC board appointed a team of highly capable, skilled senior executives, many of whom are still clinging on. They haven’t been perfect – they handled matters such as the retrenchments poorly and the reduction in news and current affairs programmes will leave us all poorer for decades to come.

But the SABC board addressed sexual harassment; it investigated actions under the previous board and COO; it launched world-class editorial policies; it developed a digital strategy; it launched an app and even built a streaming service. In addition, it also achieved something few thought possible; it rebuilt the credibility of SABC News. Under the leadership of Phathiswa Magopeni, we saw the SABC acting as a real public broadcaster. While Magopeni’s tenure was cut short, and there were serious allegations of interference, the spectacular achievements of all those players still stand.

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What we as Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), a media watchdog that has been going for the past 30 years, saw was an institution that had made some critical breaks with its crisis-ridden past. At the same time, we also saw efforts to destabilise the institution, to undermine it from within, to walk back the gains, to drive wedges, divisions and infighting. Still, the board served its full term, and SABC News continued to operate independently.

The achievements were all the more incredible against a backdrop where the government failed yet again to address a policy environment 20 years out of date, an environment that is seeing broadcasters the world over struggling with the rise of digital and over-the-top services, where there is inadequate funding to produce local content, and where for two years, the SABC had to operate risking the lives of its staff during the Covid pandemic.

It was clear the SABC still had a long way to go and faced a multiplicity of challenges, but for the first time we actually saw strategies being developed and implemented that sought to address these challenges.

Much was and is still wrong with our public broadcaster, but the previous board and senior team gave us genuine cause for hope, for a model to follow. They showed that public bodies can stand firm and prevent political interference and they can operate with people who know what they are doing. Imagine if others were to follow this example.

Perhaps it is because the SABC made such huge gains that led to the parliamentary portfolio committee not doing its job, or perhaps it was politics within the ANC and uncertainty as to who would lead the party. What is clear is that Parliament failed to do its basic job and appoint a new SABC board before the end of the current board’s term. The portfolio committee had five years to get ready, and despite warnings, it failed to act.

Parliament did eventually act – after many letters and threats, and 12 names were to be sent to the President. In a reply to a letter from MMA inquiring about the reason for the delay in appointing a new board, the President informed us that he had only received the names recommended by Parliament on 20 December and their CVs on 10 January. He assured us, however, that he would do his job and appoint the board by 10 February.

Presidential inaction

Needless to say, the President hasn’t acted and has not kept his word. Despite additional requests by both the SOS Support Public Broadcasting group and MMA, the President has still not appointed the SABC board. In the meantime, Minister of Communication and Digital Technologies Khumbudzo Ntshavheni has announced that, with the Treasury, she has appointed the SABC’s group chief executive officer as the interim accounting officer. We believe this is unlawful and irrational and exposes not only the SABC as an institution but also the GCEO in his personal capacity to severe legal risk.

Here’s a concrete example. Last week, during her input to Parliament, Ntshavheni announced that she had completed all consultations on the analogue switch-off. This is a significant development and will affect millions of the poorest South Africans. (The Constitutional Court, in a unanimous judgment, agreed with us about that here.)

Perhaps one of the most obvious questions is how did the minister consult the SABC, the biggest free-to-air broadcaster, about the analogue switch-off, when there is no board?

Are we expected to accept and believe that the GCEO would be in a position to consult adequately on his own about what is clearly a board matter?

As things stand, instead of the minister doing her job and calling on the President to appoint the board, she appears to be acting illegally in appointing the SABC GCEO as the interim accounting authority.

So we will ask again. Mr President, please appoint the SABC board. We know there are concerns about some of the members, but we insist that you do not delay a moment longer and appoint the other members.

Failure to do so means:

  • Already under-resourced NGOs such as MMA, instead of being able to focus on building the SABC, have to devote extensive resources to ensuring that basic good governance, the law and the Constitution are respected and adhered to. We are busy preparing legal papers for urgent action in the courts.
  • The Presidency will only gain a few weeks while the legal matter is heard, while the consequences will be a significant loss for the President, as it will be shown that he failed to act in accordance with his constitutional mandate.
  • The SABC will be exposed to significant risk as any decision taken or not taken may have dire legal consequences for its sustainability.
  • Morale at the SABC will plummet further still, with staff left to conclude that their work, and the role of the SABC, isn’t important enough to have a board duly appointed.
  • Parliament’s abject failure to do its job in fair time is effectively excused, as further delays show no sense of urgency or attempt to make up for its failure. We have yet to see any comment from the President or the minister condemning the portfolio committee’s failure.
  • Perhaps most significantly, the delay plays into the hands of those who wish for South Africa’s democracy to fail, for our institutions to crumble, for chaos at the SABC, so they may once again carry out dark deeds in the resulting mayhem.

Failure to appoint the board, Mr President, spits in the face of the SABC Eight, thousands of SABC staff, the previous board and senior executives who all made sacrifices in calling out wrongdoing, to protect the integrity of the SABC and to rebuild it into a real public broadcaster.

Mr President, each day that you fail to appoint this board takes us that much further from a functioning public broadcaster that has integrity, is independent and can deliver on its public mandate.

Each day that you fail to appoint the SABC board, you contribute to the problems and creation of crises.

Each day that you fail to appoint the SABC board, you fail in your public mandate to respect and protect the Constitution.

Mr President, how can we be expected to take any claim you make about digging South Africa out of any of the crises we are in, when your failure to act on this matter demonstrates the exact opposite? Mr President, please, appoint the SABC Board. DM

William Bird is the director of independent media watchdog Media Monitoring Africa.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mike Blackburn says:

    Simply put, another example of how Ramaphosa is governing by postponement- too scared to actually do anything he’s merely warming the chair until he eventually leaves office. We continue to be let down by this useless leader

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    SABC, why bother? It’s an expensive incumbrance and puppet of state propaganda. It’s dead. Bury it.

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