Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 1 September 2013

The comic opera at the SABC board plays on

With tempers flaring and doors slamming, the comings and goings at the SABC board have been more high farce than sober board deliberation. Now, for act four, scene one, 37 short-listed candidates are being interviewed for twelve positions on the fourth replacement board since 2008, as the mandate of the interim board expires next month. For five years the board’s work has been blighted by often acrimonious disagreements and squabbles about everything from strategy to support for dismissed executives.

Instead of the independence and distance from vested interests which should be the goal of public service broadcasting, the SABC has fallen into the infamous trap of becoming a mouthpiece of government. It was so in the previous regime and it is still, disappointingly, so in the new South Africa. Used as a political instrument, the SABC’s various board incarnations have been characterised by political appointments of mostly under-qualified but loyal cadres. They are sanctioned directly by the president. Support of the party is more important than the impartial governance that ought to be providing guidance and direction for the institution.

It is reported now that ANC members of parliament, with sudden blinding insight, are demanding that there should be a focus on “good governance and sound financial management”.  Last week, the dead-serious communications committee chairman Sikhumbuzo Kholwane said with a perfectly straight face, “One issue we need to get right at the SABC is corporate governance”. Really? Who would have thought? He went further, “We are going for experience and we all know that part of the problem has been corporate governance”.

At this stage nobody needs reminding that previous, elaborate, heavy-handed and expensive recruitment exercises in which large numbers of candidates were interviewed and boards were put together that, by all accounts, ought to have worked. But they didn’t. The main reason being that once installed, board members must please their political masters, and there is always disagreement on how this is to be achieved.

Board members, who sometimes have little appreciation of what it means to be a non-executive director, end up pulling in opposing directions. Little care or concern, it seems, is given to the actual quality of broadcasting or its purpose in the developing South African democracy.

Public broadcasting in other commonwealth countries all have mandates that serve to uplift society in some way and to make it work more equitably. According to their website, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is “legally required to encourage and promote musical, dramatic and other performing arts to foster a sense of national identity”. In New Zealand the public broadcasting supports the Maori with the stated intention of “improving their opportunities and maintaining their cultural heritage”. In the UK the BBC promotes “multiculturalism and diversity”, while in Canada the public broadcaster supports the sensitive issue of French and English bilingualism.

Public broadcasting must be different from private commercial broadcasting. It should not be driven to make profit. It should provide a platform for discussion and debate that will increase awareness of important national subjects. Significant social issues, environmental sustainability, the challenges of our educational system and a range of other topics could be addressed. Above all, it has to be independent and free from any party affiliations if it is to serve the whole country.

If we had any sense in South Africa our public broadcasting service, for which we pay license fees and which qualifies for taxpayer support, should be compelled to take on a more fair and independent role. It should be digesting the news and commenting on current issues in a way that is deeper than what is found on the regular commercial channels. Like some of those in other countries, its focus and core underlying value system could be for the uplifting and opportunity creation for the poor, or plans for job creation, or care and protection for women and children, or any one of a dozen other laudable causes. Instead what do we have? We have a misguided institution that doesn’t understand its real purpose and a board that focuses on power play and internecine warfare.

Government interference is our other party trick. In the time of the now excoriated minister Dina Pule, she was said by board members to have been the main reason behind their mass resignations because “the minister does not know where her powers start and end”.

If we want to avoid further hilarious but embarrassing episodes of this saga wouldn’t the selection committee take the hint and as a first step think again to define the purpose of the SABC? Is it ever going to be a real public service broadcaster? Could it not be used to improve our society and become something we are proud of? Or is it to follow its present course of trying to do what the commercial broadcasters are doing much more successfully, focussing on a great deal of shallow, but profitable, entertainment?

After some Governance 101 coaching a good next step for the selection committee would be to appoint a strong and independent chairman who has no party affiliation and who will not allow any government interference at the board. Like any other powerful shareholder the government needs representation on the board and no one should argue this. But the influence of the ANC-led government must be moderated by several independent directors who have a clear sense of the SABC’s higher purpose.

The nature of a comic opera is that it has a humorous plot and a happy ending. Is there any chance of that outcome at the SABC board? DM

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