Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 10 December 2012

Dear Minister Pule.. Let’s talk frankly

The minister of communications, Dina Pule, inherited much of the mess that is the SABC. However, there is disturbingly little evidence to show that the censorship, corruption and crass abuse of power for which the public broadcaster has become renowned, is on the wane under her leadership.  

Dear Minister Dina Pule,

Another day, another bizarre development at the SABC. Minister what on earth is going on? I know that your hands have been full, what with the whole stillborn digital migration and the public protector’s snooping around on the ICT indaba debacle and all the inconvenience that goes with having your integrity questioned. But for today, while all that is cooking, let’s focus on the public broadcaster. Let us do so before dawn. 

It can’t be right minister, for journalists (or presenters for that matter) to be told how to think. Even journalists who are progressive and work for the SABC are expected to at least seem independent. I am certain that with your background and gravitas in struggle you can’t have possibly sanctioned this recurring attempt by the public broadcaster to turn journalists into sycophants. After all, only a month ago, after years of denial, the SABC admitted to blacklisting journalists and analysts ahead of Polokwane. A few weeks on and we are faced with even a more blatant form of censorship – with the SABC looking like a fish and chips outlet quite frankly; slapdash and so clumsy – in an attempt to come to the defence of the ANC. Something that someone needs to whisper in the ears of these cadres is that the ANC has it covered lately. There is no need for cadres to be more ANC than the ANC itself. 

In the same way that I do not believe that you have sanctioned that someone without qualifications , and someone who has lied about not having these qualifications, would continue to be in charge of one of the most powerful parastatals in the country and then have the temerity to announce publicly that a journalist, a seasoned journalist, is a mere presenter and will be disciplined for speaking their mind on what the entire country correctly surmised as utter censorship and crass abuse of power.

Surely by now the SABC board should have acted on the matter of the appointment of the chief operating officer?  I do not believe that the current prevarication is happening with your sanction. The board has been a ball of embarrassment to say the least, failing to provide a sensible turnaround strategy and regularly washing its dirty linen in the parliamentary galleries. Surely, it can’t be under your sanction minister. It is time you paid attention to this… before dawn. 

The most recent audit report on the SABC tells a story of rampant corruption and misuse of public funds on a staggering scale. The suspension of the only chief financial officer at the SABC to have the courage to stop the tender madness – by suspending all tenders, across the corporation, in view of the adverse audit findings – also leaves a stink that surely even you can smell. Minister, you appointed this CFO well aware of her hard-headedness and firmness. She has done exactly what you expected and it boggles the mind why she is now being hung out to dry. We all know that at the heart of her suspension is all the tenders that she is hindering; tenders in which some board members have a vested interest. I know I can talk to you frankly about this and cut through all the sensitivities of the separation of the board’s power and your political responsibility. Surely, if the law gives you the power to appoint a CFO, it must give you the courtesy of being consulted if she is being fired? 

The Mangaung conference will be seized, correctly, with what kind of model of public broadcaster model this country must adopt. This matter has now become urgent. The SABC had singularly failed the mission of this government to communicate with the people. The fact that in government there is talk of a government TV station or radio station is an indictment; among others, a major role of a public broadcaster is to close the gap between the state and the people. We shudder to imagine how the SABC is going to fill up content in the multiple television channels we are told are being planned. A report published in the City Press about two months ago paints a gloomy picture of the state of programming at the public broadcaster. You would also feel like cutting your wrists if you were subjected to yet another re-run of Bophelo ke Semphekgo or the Cosby Show, both first seen when permed hair was still in fashion. The SABC is a mess, minister. I know that most of it was inherited from the General, but you have had enough time in my view to put your own stamp on matters. 

Let’s briefly recall the sorry tales that are yours to sort out: 

? The head of news has been on suspension for months, apparently as a result of a fight over the news diary. The CEO wanted to tell journalists what to cover daily and Ou Phil said no, not on my watch. For a news organisation to have an acting head of news for such an extended period should be classified a scandal. Of course, while acting as head of news, affable Jimmy also issued his own slate banning the use of words unpalatable to the powers that be … at least in his own view.  

? Several top officials, including the CFO, have been suspended. Yet another case of unfinished business. One can only shudder to think what is going on in a multi-billion-rand corporation that does not have a fulltime CFO. You are going to need the SIU again when that chapter is finally closed. Of course all this happens when a report is out pointing fingers at ex officials who embezzled as much as they could. I am certain some action will be taken … eventually. 

? Journalists of note are leaving the broadcaster in droves. The most recent catastrophic loss is the departure of respected anchor Siki Mgabadeli. Do names such as John Perlman, Jeremy Maggs, Nikiwe Bikitsha and Lerato Mbele ring a bell in the brain-drain stakes? Must we hold our breath when the last journalist of integrity leaves the faulty towers … before they are demoted to mere presenters of propaganda?

? The board itself is imploding, with a stream of resignations since it was first appointed. That should tell you plenty about what is going on in there. A place so poorly governed is unlikely to meet its obligations. How much more damage must be wreaked before the board is replaced? 

I hope the suggestions in this letter will be received in the good spirit with which they were made… Tshwane, we have a problem. See you in Mangaung. 

Yours frankly,

Onkgopotse JJ Tabane DM


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