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Governance twilight zone at SABC — a clear and present danger of political capture

Governance twilight zone at SABC — a clear and present danger of political capture
(Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

Without an independent board, it is impossible to guarantee editorial independence at the public broadcaster. Without a board at all? All bets are off.

When assessing the risk of mis/disinformation on issues ranging from elections to vaccines to the invasion of Ukraine, it is important to not look only at social media. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022, SABC News has the biggest reach across broadcast platforms and is the second biggest online news source in South Africa after News24. SABC is also the largest radio operator, with more than 30 million people listening to SABC radio stations every day in all of SA’s indigenous languages. SABC remains a hugely significant media player in South Africa, even with declining TV audiences.

Protecting the independence of the SABC is not only vital for constitutional democracy, but also important to ensure that the public broadcaster serves as a bulwark against mis/disinformation rather than becoming a party to it. 

The failure by the President to appoint the SABC board, despite having the 12 selected names on his desk since 20 December 2022, is now the subject of litigation at the Constitutional Court. On 15 March 2023, it was exactly five months since the public broadcaster had a board of directors, leaving the SABC in a governance twilight zone and treading water while revenues decline further and targets are missed every month.

As indicated in recent interviews on SABC’s Morning Live show and Eusebius McKaiser’s podcast, this unprecedented, lengthy delay has made the SABC weaker financially and more vulnerable to political interference and potential political capture.

The SABC will need a vigilant, independent board to ensure that the corporation can cover South Africa’s 2024 elections fairly, as it did with the 2019 and 2021 elections. As some commentators have cogently argued, the weakening of governance at the SABC is part of a deliberate strategy to try to shape as much of the narrative as possible before the 2024 elections.

It will not be an easy task to successfully undermine editorial independence at the SABC. First, a compliant SABC board will be required to look the other way, yet several of the 12 people waiting to be appointed by the President have a history of independent decision-making.

Second, any attempts to directly impose censorship on the SABC News operation will face practical and legal difficulties. Many respected journalists and editors are still employed by the public broadcaster and editorial independence is even more strongly protected by the 2020 Editorial Policies.

Bad actors

However, complacency is ill-advised when it comes to political interference at the SABC. We should know by now that policies can be undermined, deliberately “misunderstood” and bypassed by bad actors in any news organisation. A weakened SABC could be vulnerable to becoming an active or unwitting actor in disinformation campaigns. 

“Capture”, as the Zondo Commission set out in encyclopaedic detail, is not always an overnight event, but takes place in stages after governance protections are successively removed. 

As Chief Justice Raymond Zondo said in his final report on the SABC: 

“One must wholly agree with the view expressed by Mr [Bongumusa] Makhathini, the chairperson since 2017, that depoliticising’ is of paramount importance in the renewal, rehabilitation and strengthening of governance systems. Appointing competent and credible executives with the prerequisite skills and experience is at the heart of the renewal process.” 

Unfortunately, over the past five months, we have seen a “repoliticisation” of governance at the public broadcaster. Government ministers have been interacting directly and regularly with SABC executive directors for 160 days and counting. This direct relationship and unhealthy proximity is not only contrary to the Shareholder Compact signed between the government and the SABC board, but has the potential to start impacting on the SABC’s overall editorial independence. 

With employment contracts of key executives coming to an end soon, the absence of a board for nearly half a year has taken on a different significance.

In the current circumstances, there is a clear and present danger of political capture while a critical layer of governance remains missing at the public broadcaster.

The SABC board’s independence, derived from the Broadcasting Act, is inherently linked to the editorial independence of the SABC. Without an independent board, it is impossible to guarantee editorial independence. Without a board at all? All bets are off. DM

Michael Markovitz is head of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) Media Leadership Think Tank and a former SABC board director.


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