SABC a rerun of blunders


The SABC, with its three television channels and 18 radio stations, is one of the most powerful broadcasting organisations in the world. It should be the central pillar in the building of South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy, for a well-informed public is an organic necessity for the healthy functioning of a democratic system. Instead, what we are seeing is the implosion of an immensely important national institution.

Nearly all its best professional journalists, broadcasters, programmers and filmmakers have either been fired or have quit in disgust. 

Those who are left cower in unproductive corners, trying to survive the hissing bosses who dominate the place. As a result the SABC has intentionally sacrificed its quality and credibility.

In the early years after its unbanning, the ANC committed itself with real robustness to the task of restructuring the SABC, an organisation perverted into a shameful propaganda organ by the old apartheid regime. 

Under the direction of now-humiliated Pallo Jordan, then head of ANC’s information and publicity department, and his deputy, Gill Marcus (now governor of the South African Reserve Bank), the ANC worked with media organisations to launch a major training campaign aimed at building a new pool of journalists, broadcasters and administrators whose expertise could be drawn on, to restructure the SABC in preparation for a new South Africa.

The emphasis throughout this urgent campaign was placed on the SABC as a ‘public broadcaster’, as distinct from a state broadcaster, that would focus [wholly] on the broad public interest rather than the narrow political interests of political parties. The campaign attracted significant public interest. Public broadcasters in Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States sent a troop of trainers to South Africa and invited some of the most promising local talent to their countries for hands-on training. A substantial amount of money was invested in this project. Looking back today, all that was a complete waste. Hardly anyone that went through that intense training programme remains at the SABC.

Admittedly, the highlight was the selection of the new ‘rainbow nation’ SABC board – a democratic affair, even by the standards of the leaders of the free world. In addition to focused discussions between the government and the ANC, the process involved constitutional negotiations taking place at the then – World Trade Centre. 

Civil society organisations were invited to submit nominations, from which a carefully balanced, multiracial selection panel of eight lawyers, co-chaired by two Supreme Court judges, Piet Schabort and Ismael Mohamed, who were also joint chairmen of the Negotiating Council itself, would choose a short-list to be interviewed for positions on a 25-member board.

There were more than 500 nominees, from which 45 were short-listed. The interviews took place in public, before packed audiences in a hall at the World Trade Centre, and they were televised live. One would have thought 45 job interviews for appointments to the board of directors of a parastatal corporation would not make for great television, but such was the level of public fascination born of years of fatigue at the abuse of the SABC that the publicised interviews drew some of the highest audience ratings in the broadcaster’s history.

All seemed to be looking up until institutional decay started to set in. It began when the democratically elected first board’s term ran out and a new method of selecting the board was instituted. This entailed the parliamentary select committee on communications interviewing the nominees and selecting a list of names for submission to the President. The moment the selection process was delegated to a panel of politicians, it became politicised.

As the ruling party with a 62.16 percent majority, the ANC dominates all parliamentary select committees. So it is the selection system that is the root cause of the SABC’s tribulations. 

The selection system must be removed from the political arena and placed in the hands of an independent commission. Such a commission could be modeled on the Judicial Services Commission that selects the country’s judges. A Broadcasting Commission could be established to interview candidates and appoint the boards of directors of the SABC, the signal distributing company SENTECH, and the Independent Communications Authority, ICASA.

We remember, not so long ago, the laughable episode of the SABC forking out R14-million in a settlement with fired Chief Executive Dali Mpofu, who during his tempestuous 18-month tenure cost the SABC R100-million in worthless programming and other failures. 

Whereupon, the institution went on to ask the government for a R2-billion payout to settle its debts. Today the SABC is plagued with scandals, the latest of which is Hlaudi Motsoeneng who is fingered in the Public Protector’s report as having increased his salary from R1.4-million to R2.4-million in one year, misrepresented his matric qualifications and purged qualified senior staff.

Quality and credibility can only be restored to the SABC once the selection process reflects diligent effort to adhere to the principles of transparency, fairness and qualified professionalism. Young South Africans are looking for qualified and exemplary leaders in whose footsteps they can walk.

 • Thato Mmereki writes from South Africa. He is founder of the African Youth Secretariat

September 2014
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