Opinionista William Bird 10 November 2017

Minister’s appeal of SABC judgment serves only to destabilise the public broadcaster…again

The latest Minister of Communications has decided to appeal a ground-breaking judgment that gave the SABC Board independence. Here we go again. Shooting ourselves in the foot just as we thought we might have a chance to stand up and walk. The sad thing is I don’t think that too many people will notice; after all, the SABC in crisis is as normal in South Africa as Kota and SAA bailouts.

Such is the depth of our national crisis trauma that we struggle to grasp the daily scandals and crises. It seems one of the only ways to get some reaction is to release a book packed so full of sickening corruption even the State Security Agency has to make some legal grunts about it. Of course, the SSA goes for the journalist and ignores the litany of issues highlighted in the book.

Meanwhile the horror and crises that impact the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised might make front page headlines but they seem to disappear all too quickly. A few months ago The Times reported on how a 14-year-old boy was shot in the face with a rubber bullet at just about point-blank range by the police. Surely that would result in some strong action? Seemingly not. When we were a slightly less chaotic democracy the idea that a mayor would be caught sending a political party whatsapp pictures of a 14-year-old girl in states of undress, and that a senior party official and cabinet minister would say that this was a party matter, should have resulted in a national crisis. After all, we have a man of significant local power and authority violating a young girl, and a senior party official saying it is a “party matter”, and not only is the man not arrested, he is put on special leave – so an abuser gets to spend time at home on full pay while on special leave. Meanwhile his victim had to go to court to get an order preventing this mayor from intimidating her and her family. And then we say we care about child abuse and combating violence? Sure, a lovely middle finger to all those in government and civil society who work tirelessly to combat child abuse.

It is pretty unusual for a judgement about governance and independence to be quite so far-reaching, and potentially shift the fortunes of the SABC. So why is the judgement so important and what did the Court find?

The full judgement is well worth reading here and so is this excellent piece by Pierre de Vos on it as well. In essence, the court empowered the Board for the first time to appoint the CEO, COO and CFO without any requirement of Ministerial approval. Not only does the SABC Board have this power, but the court also held that the process for appointing executive directors is to be transparent and open including public advertising, conductive interviews and taking into account objects and principles of the Broadcasting Act. Crucially, the court also held that the Minister is to have no powers in respect of disciplining executive Board members. Such powers rest with the Board alone. Finally, the court also held in terms of removing non-executive members of the Board, the only lawful process is that as set out in sections 15 and 15A of the Broadcasting Act, that is, processes that involve Parliament and the President. In short, the court gave the SABC Board a level of independence hitherto unknown for the SABC Board.

In practical terms the ruling is good for everyone, especially the public and the SABC itself. After all, it promotes openness, accountability and transparency. Who would think these are bad things? Well clearly, the Minister of Communications as she/he no longer has broad authority of interference. Seen from the Ministers perspective it is understandable that she would want to appeal the ruling – as it has curtailed her powers quite extensively. While we can empathise with a Ministers wounded pride, we would have hoped that the public interest would trump personal interest and that she would not appeal. But there is also clearly more at play. 

We just need to ask in whose interest is it that the SABC stays in a state of chaos? A broadcaster in chaos is one that will struggle to combat corruption, retain excellent people who can drive the vision and mandate of the public broadcaster. An SABC in chaos is one where world class editorial policies, and recommitment to editorial independence are extremely hard to achieve and easy to undermine. An SABC in chaos is also one that is unlikely to move out of financial crisis. It is also, crucially, an SABC in which those who seek to support or undermine fair, balanced and accurate news can move in the shadows and not be accountable. It is also an SABC which will struggle to follow through on investigations to find and hold accountable those responsible for threatening the lives of the SABC8. In other words, an SABC in chaos serves a limited political agenda.

In this context it is hardly surprising that Minister number 3 for 2017 is merely seeking to destabilise the SABC again. On a level it is at least an indicator of normality. It is normal for the SABC pretty much since the departure of the Peter Matlare Board (noteworthy for its economic success, possibly to the detriment of other areas) has lurched in one way or another form crisis to crisis. Ask outgoing and former SABC board members with integrity as to the cause and the answer will almost always involve Ministerial interference.

Not only does the chaos then serve an agenda, but it is also clear that Ministerial interference itself is a core reason for instability of the SABC. The impact of the decision was almost immediately clear during a Portfolio Committee on Communication meeting, the first with the new permanent Board. Sadly, it appears, we saw the Committee revert to defensive style of seeking to deflect questions rather than answer, and we saw the Minister exerting her authority over the Board. It was a flashback to an ugly time where the Portfolio Committee had been actively complicit in ensuring the SABC remained in crisis.

The decision to appeal is therefore not only self-interested and politically driven, but it also seeks to rob us of the chance to try an independent SABC board. The only winners in the decision to appeal are factional political interests. The biggest losers? The public. With less money the SABC will produce less local content, fewer people will see and hear themselves and their stories on the public broadcaster. The quality and credibility of the news will deteriorate once again, bad not only for the SABC but the entire media sector. Instead of serving as an example of our nations potential the SABC will serve as a laughing stock, and help fulfil negative stereotypes about Africa. So sure, the Minster has a legal right to appeal, but it is for all the wrong reasons, and has brought the department into disrepute as well as our media sector. DM

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