Opinionista Ryland Fisher 11 March 2013

SABC: Back to the drawing board, again

The ongoing farce that is the public broadcaster, also known as Faulty Towers, is really no laughing matter. The problem is obvious: The South African Broadcasting Corporation will continue to be mired in crisis for as long as board members and senior managers are appointed on the basis of political loyalties. The solution is no less obvious but, unless you’re as naive as I am, don’t hold your breath waiting for its implementation.

A few years ago, in what with hindsight seems like a moment of madness, I decided to accept nomination to the board of the SABC.

I had some time on my hands and felt that I could use my experience in the media industry to make a contribution to one of the country’s most important media institutions.

Even before I accepted the nomination, I spoke to quite a few people about the needs of the SABC, in order to prepare myself properly should the people who decide on the SABC board, the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications, call me for an interview and, even better, appoint me to the board.

Quite a few people, including former board members, warned me about how fraught the organisation was with problems. Most people I spoke to felt that the organisation could not be rescued.

That just encouraged me to make myself available, because I have always loved impossible challenges.

Of course, I did not even get to the interview stage, let alone get onto the board.

This was a huge blow to my ego, but again, with the beautiful beast called hindsight, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.

Over the years I have watched the SABC lurch from one disaster to the next. And just when you think that the public broadcaster is over the worst and has a decent board at last, you get disappointed once again.

The latest saga involving the SABC, the on-off-on relationship with acting chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, has exposed once again how bedevilled the organisation is.

Motsoeneng was fired by the board a few weeks ago, reinstated by the board chairman, Ben Ngubane, and apparently re-fired (if there is such a word).

It is very clear that Motsoeneng has the backing of the chairman, but not most of the other board members. Ngubane gushed about Motsoeneng’s contribution to the SABC at a business briefing with the ANC’s top six hosted by The New Age in Mangaung in December, and I have heard him applaud Motsoeneng’s contribution publicly in other forums too.

There is a perception that Motsoeneng also has the backing of President Jacob Zuma. As such, it is believed that he cannot be touched. How true this is I do not know, but perceptions often inform reality.

I am not one of those people who will make an issue of Motsoeneng’s lack of a matric certificate. If he is the best person to do the job, then he should be allowed to do it. And he should be able to do it with the support of the board.

The fact that he has been “acting” for so long indicates that there is some reluctance to give him the job on a permanent basis.

One of the criticisms of Motsoeneng is that he has become all-powerful at the SABC, in many ways even more powerful than the CEO, Lulama Mokhobo, who has not been in the SABC hot seat for too long. This, I believe, should not be seen as a criticism of Motsoeneng, but rather a criticism of Mokhobo who has not asserted herself in the same way as Motsoeneng. As least that is how it appears to an outsider.

But these are mere technicalities in the real battle at the SABC, which will always be a contested terrain and which has been used by consecutive governments as a space from which they hope to push their factional agendas.

The SABC is too important an institution for us to sit back and laugh at the shenanigans going on at what some people refer to as Faulty Towers.

The organisation, with its powerful network of television channels and radio stations, needs to have the confidence of the public in order to do its work properly. More than any other medium in South Africa, the public broadcaster has the responsibility to make sure that our populace remains informed, educated and entertained.

Our tax money and licence fees help to keep the SABC afloat, unlike the other media which are privately owned and whose main obligation is to their shareholders. We expect the SABC to be a professionally-run operation that takes its mandate seriously.

So how does one fix the SABC? If I knew the answer, I could probably make a lot of money selling the solution to government.

However, I believe it starts with the composition and power of the board. There must be strict criteria for board members to have skills that could potentially add value to the core business of the SABC, whether board members are appointed by the president or the portfolio committee, and how they get appointed does not matter as much as appointing the right people.

We cannot afford to continue this practice of appointing people to the SABC board based on their political loyalties without any apparent regard to the potential contribution they can make.

At the same time, the duties and powers of the CEO must be clearly defined. My limited understanding of business is that the board normally deals with strategic issues and the CEO and her team are responsible for operational matters. What appears to have happened at the SABC over the years is that the board has dabbled in operational matters and has often clashed with the CEO because of this.

The SABC needs to stop having acting appointments. It is not possible to take proper decisions an acting capacity, resulting in senior managers merely following routine. However, the SABC needs much more than routine. It needs bold leadership: from the board, the CEO, the COO and other senior managers.

The SABC also needs a proper turnaround plan and it needs to stick to it. It doesn’t need to pay consultant millions for this. It just needs to stick to the basics.

The Department of Communications, to which the SABC reports, must ensure proper accountability measures are in place at the public broadcaster.

The board needs to urgently convene so that its members can be reminded of their mandate. If there are board members who feel they cannot deliver on the mandate, then they should have the guts to resign. Maybe then the way will be clear for fresh blood which can hopefully help to restore faith in our embattled public broadcaster.

Or am I just being naïve? Maybe it’s a good thing I never got onto the SABC board. I would probably just have quit in frustration. DM

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