SABC’s Reputation Is On The Line

The SABC’s floundering attempts to transform itself from a propaganda machine to a public broadcaster reflects the problems facing parastatals and the civil service, writes Mark Gevisser

‘WE are accountable to you and you alone.” With these stirring sentiments, CCV concluded its public statement to the people of South Africa, issued on Sunday over the controversy surrounding the suspension of The Line. It was a brave and belated attempt to restore public confidence in an SABC battered by a series of crises over the past two weeks.

Brave declarations and indignant obfuscations aside, the truth is this: the SABC has been woefully unsuccessful at managing its transition into a public broadcaster.

And, as the fiasco over The Line has demonstrated, it is in terrible danger of losing the sympathy and support of its raison d’etre and cash cow: its viewing and listening public.

It is worth looking at the dynamics behind these crises, not only because the SABC remains South Africa’s information and entertainment lifeline, but because the chaos there offers us an object lesson about brewing transformation struggles throughout the civil service and parastatal sector: the SABC after all, was the first state organ to attempt transformation — the process started there with the appointment of a new “board of national unity” in May 1993.

Now, over a year later, the corporation finds itself in a messy interregnum that seems interminable. Here’s what the SABC did wrong over the past year: it made a lot of noise about change — and then did nothing. This led to intense anxiety about job security, loss of faith by those willing to change, and the opportunity to sabotage by those unwilling to change.

Blame must be shared by all parties involved: a board too involved in its own project of “national reconciliation” and too cautious to move quickly; an old management that has not yet come to terms with the prerogatives of public broadcasting; new managers unwilling to ruffle feathers and dig their hands deep into the messy entrails of the corporation; and unions torn between the imperatives of transformation and the need to preserve the jobs of their members.

The tragedy is that so many people at the SABC — on staff and in management — believe profoundly in a new order. They want change as desperately as we, the viewers, do. They just don’t know how to begin battling the behemoth — and there’s no one to give them any guidance.

That’s the crux: a void where vision should be. This fact is painfully evident in all three of the much-publicised crises of the past two weeks:

* By first suspending and then reinstating The Line — one of the finest pieces of local drama to be produced yet — a vacillating CCV graphically underscored the lack of coherent vision and policy at Auckland Park.

* The premature leak of a document proposing the relegation of Afrikaans to secondary status made Auckland Park so jittery that group chief executive Wynand Harmse took the unprecedented step of setting up an on-line address to SABC staff nationwide. The ensuing storm highlights the SABC’s lack of control over both its staff and policy-making process.

* The turmoil at Television News Productions, resulting in a 180-strong petition protesting against TNP management and the “resignation” of TNP editor-in-chief Johan Pretorius, was the direct result of an utter absence of leadership in the SABC newsroom. The dissatisfaction has spread to radio news, where a similar petition is circulating.

The TNP brouhaha is perhaps the best example of the consequences of a lack of vision. Like any good newsroom the world over, the SABC is filled with opinionated, difficult, egocentric personalities.

But, unlike in other good newsrooms, there has been no one around to pull everyone together and say, “Listen! This is where we are going and this is what we need to do to get there.”

Without that direction, energy has been misdirected into personal feuding; suspicion and bile have replaced good programming. One senior journalist says he has been so involved in politicking that he hasn’t filed a report for over three weeks. No one has even noticed.

Finally, though, there is movement at TNP. Johan Pretorius is out, and Zwelakhe Sisulu, the corporation’s heir apparent, will himself act as TNP’s editor-in-chief for the next two months. Beneath him, Andre le Roux will function as its executive editor, responsible for the day-to-day management of news.

Change at TNP will now be driven by yet another committee: a transformation unit consisting of staffers and management which will develop a plan for transforming TNP. The unit, which was presented to staff on Tuesday, consists of Le Roux, Isak Minnaar of GMSA, training chief Hein Ungerer, religion head Solly Mabelane, new manager Joe Tloloe, and journalists Amina Frense and Sefako Nyaka.

But this new structure begs as many questions as it hopes to answer.

Can a news unit be run democratically? If this is a way of giving TNP staff effective participation in planning the future, is it at the expense of productivity and efficiency – – and thus programming? Is the transformation unit, ultimately, just a smokescreen obscuring the fact that there is still no one in control? Who, ultimately, carries the can?

These days, all fingers point to mild-mannered Sisulu.

He was responsible for jettisoning Johan Pretorius and initiating the TNP transformation unit. He was the one who engineered the turnaround over The Line and made the channel put the drama back on the air. He is the one who has set up a “shadow cabinet” at senior managerial level — a corporation- wide transformation team to do the policy-work that the board has proven itself incapable of delivering.

Sisulu seems to be the only senior manager at SABC able to inject the corporation with “the vision thing”. His mantra is “a programme-driven SABC”. It is fascinating to see how many people, throughout the corporation, have already taken this concept on.

But Sisulu seems to be enveloping himself in a haze of committees and consultants, as if he is not prepared — or ready — to wield the hatchet himself.

And he is spreading himself thin.

How can he run the corporation-wide transformation unit while also trying to keep the volatile TNP house in order?

Even now, in the critical first two weeks of the new TNP regime, Sisulu is nowhere to be seen.

He is trailing a BBC honcho in London.

Meanwhile, phone any extension at random at the SABC, and you’ll be offered a sob story, a rant and probably a leaked document or two.

This week the board sat through yet another series of policy- drafting meetings.

The affirmative action policy alone is in its sixth draft.

Talk, talk, talk.

Action will be taken, one is told by a resigned public relations official who cannot even name the number of board sub-committees that have been set up, “sometime in September”.

It may be too late.


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