To fix SABC, break it up

It’s a re-run: rather than only reporting on South Africa, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is itself once again a news story. And for all the wrong reasons.

The broadcaster has re-entered the limelight in recent weeks with tales of shenanigans, accusations and counter-accusations, divisions and denials.

That’s not to mention suspensions and protests, budgets and spending issues, corporate governance problems and resignations. Plus there’s a couple of assorted legal actions and an attempt to cover up the dirt in a behind-closed-doors meeting in parliament.

South Africans should laud the broadcaster’s long-suffering staffers who continue to generate a flow of programming. But the long list of surface problems has a lesson: you can keep changing the people at the top, but if the difficulties don’t go away then the reason has to be deeper. It’s because they are systemic.

What’s endemically broken at SABC can be assessed in terms of cultural, political and economic factors.

To start with the cultural causes, there’s the new “Social Reconstruction Initiative” drawn up by news chief Phil Molefe.

It’s entirely appropriate that a public service broadcaster should explicitly align itself with causes like education, health, crime, poverty alleviation and rural development, (no matter that these are also priorities proclaimed by government).

But conspicuously missing from the SABC’s list is the classic public broadcasting objective of supporting democracy.

In other words, the Social Responsibility Initiative implies this: audiences should be galvanised for social action, but their political involvement left high and dry.

In this way, the SABC slogan of “total citizen empowerment” ends up ignoring the issues of active citizenship and political accountability — thereby leaving out the most important drivers of development.

If the news culture has left out a critical issue, where does the SABC Board stand on this? In response to a question from this column, SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago replied that the Social Responsibility Initiative “does not change nor alter any of the SABC’s own policies; therefore Board’s approval is not required in-line with the Corporation’s Delegation of Authority”.

He continued: “The initiative is in-line with the Group Executive: News and Current Affairs’ Key Performance Areas approved by the Board.”

Kganyago’s answer points indirectly to a further problem with the culture at SABC: a deficit of communication. Granted, it’s not the easiest thing to liaise with a Board which rejects its Chairperson and is also busy shedding members.

It’s also tough to get the take of the broadcaster’s CEO – whom the SABC’s structure defines as “Editor-in-Chief”. Lest we forget, ex-CEO Dali Mpofu was followed by Gab Mampone in an acting capacity. The latter was then suspended by his successor Sol Mokoetle — who himself was put on suspension last month.

At the time of writing, acting CEO/Editor-in-Chief is Robin Nicholson. He too was subjected to suspension at one point in the last 12 months. Recall too, that there have been no less than three boards in less than two years—

There is simply no way that SABC — or any organisation — can invigorate its culture and communicate amongst its principals with this kind of leadership turnover.

Underlying the instability in the SABC’s top echelons, however, are the most fundamental drivers of the corporation’s crisis: the factors of politics and money.

Every politician and his/her dog wants a bite of the broadcaster, and the effect is debilitating. Meantime, the commercial business model bumps along a rock-strewn path leading directly away from proper public service broadcasting.

South Africa can keep on trying to find the right people to run the board and to work in senior management. But the strong likelihood is that they will also get caught up in, or fall victim to, the dysfunctionality of an institution which the evidence now shows is irreparable.

Here’s a radical recipe to at least dilute the influence of politics on SABC:

  • Break the behemoth into smaller pieces – and decentralise its control away from parliament.
  • Govern the then autonomous stations by means of provincial and national stakeholder constituencies (eg. nominees from churches, unions, universities, etc.).

What about the money side? Government has given a guarantee of R1,47-biilion to the SABC, enabling the corporation to borrow money from the banks. Immediately, however, R910-million would have had to go into paying off the 2008/2009 financial year losses.

The crisis was postponed, but is now busy intensifying. SABC today has to make enough profit to not only pay back the borrowed (and spent) money with interest, but at the same time cover its ever-ongoing costs.

Unsurprisingly, there is still no “turn-around” plan on the table. The alternative here?

  • Let decentralised and separate stations compete with each other (and with other broadcasters) for grants from a public fund for public broadcasting,
  • Let them form voluntarily networks to part-share content (as in the USA’s broadcast model), thereby achieving economies-of-scale as distinct from the bloat of bigness.

Earlier this year, the Department of Communications proposed a draft Public Broadcasting Bill that recognised some of the structural problems at SABC. But the proposed remedy was to increase government control and inject yet more public funds into the gaping vortex.

That won’t work. Instead, the time has come to ask whether SABC is really too big to fail. And for government to decide if it will persist in propping up an unworkable institution— or realise that more daring solutions are called for.

This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, The views expressed in it are those of the author. Disclosure: the author is head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University which hosted the WJEC.

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