How to fix the public broadcaster
There are now so many crises at the SABC that we are beginning to lose track. The tasks involved in addressing these and restoring the SABC as a credible public broadcaster are huge and urgently need to be taken up by Parliament, Icasa and the new minister of communications, Siphiwe Nyanda.
Parliament’s portfolio committee on communications
The committee must take a large share of the responsibility for some of the crises at the SABC.
It plays an important role in the appointment of the non-executive members of the board.
This board’s appointment process was fundamentally flawed. There was interference by the president’s office in the nomination process of at least one board member, and the committee developed a shortlist of its preferred candidates, which was effectively vetoed by Luthuli House. Party bosses provided the ANC caucus with their preferred list, which was duly acted upon.
As a result of this party-political interference a number of more suitably qualified and representative individuals were left off the board, for instance labour representatives. In our view, these procedural irregularities were so serious that the current board as a whole lacks legitimacy.
The committee has also steadfastly refused, despite public representations, to amend the Broadcasting Act to clarify who is responsible for executive appointments, or for removals of, for instance, the chief executive, chief operating and chief financial officers of the SABC.
When Parliament convenes, the committee’s first order of business must be to deal, transparently and in accordance with due process, with the problem of the illegitimacy of the board and to clarify the appointments process with respect to executive management.
The committee must regain its own public legitimacy. It must demonstrate its commitment to the law by ensuring that it never again allows its own processes to be undermined by outside political or commercial interests.
In light of the above the committee should desist from making statements, quoted in the press, that it wants to remove board members because they are allegedly Cope members or that it needs to consult its political principals in the ANC so that Parliament takes its cue from party leaders. These kinds of statements are completely at odds with the very nature of an independent public broadcaster.
The Constitution requires Icasa to regulate broadcasting in the public interest. The SABC plays a critical role in informing citizens about current events and providing programming that holds up a mirror to our society. The public is threatened if the SABC does not perform its content-related tasks properly.
Two aspects of the SABC’s crises relate directly to content. First, the SABC’s notorious blacklisting saga has never been satisfactorily dealt with, causing a huge dent in its reputation as a provider of credible news. Also, the SABC owes millions of rands to local television content producers—with producers threatening to pull popular soaps off air.
To date Icasa has displayed a clear unwillingness to take on the SABC. Icasa has only recently held hearings into the blacklisting saga—about three years after the blacklist was revealed—and has failed to get involved in the non-payment issue, despite its threat to local content. Its “hands off” approach is serving no one—not the SABC, not the production industry and certainly not the public.
The minister of communications
The new minister has his work cut out if he is to do his bit to fix the problems.
First, he must avoid playing any direct role in the affairs of the SABC. The former minister was intimately involved in the crises, particularly in relation to appointments of senior management, as is clear from court papers. She also played an inappropriate role in terms of the Shareholders’ Compact and Articles of Association of the SABC, neither of which accords with the Broadcasting Act.
Second, the minister must urgently address the unworkable financial model plaguing the SABC. A commercial approach to public broadcasting is not sustainable when the SABC has such significant language and local content commitments. To meet these, which it must do in the public interest, the SABC requires a much greater level of public funding.
Third, the minister must develop new public broadcasting policy. His department has not produced a broadcasting policy statement since the 1998 Broadcasting White Paper. South Africa urgently needs an updated public broadcasting policy and a new SABC Act that addresses the following problems:
- The unclear and vague public mandate in the SABC’s charter;
- The gaps in the legislation concerning the appointment and removal of the board and management;
- The financial model—which comprises 2% direct support from government—is not sustainable; and
- The legal structure does not sufficiently safeguard the SABC’s independence.
The SABC’s crises are serious, damaging and in urgent need of attention. If these institutions and individuals take up the challenge of addressing them, a credible public broadcaster can be built. One of the most important beneficiaries will be the poor and marginalised—people who don’t have the luxury of other sources of news, information and entertainment. Crises can often galvanise people into action. This is the perfect opportunity for these institutions to show some real leadership.
Kate Skinner is campaign coordinator for Save Our SABC. Justine Limpitlaw is a senior researcher in the faculty of law at the University of Pretoria. They write in their personal capacities