No institution could embody the spirit of a new, democratic South Africa like the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) could.
It is not just because it is called “South African” that makes it the most South African of all institutions. There are other institutions that carry the country’s name but do not have the same potential to be a true embodiment of South Africa’s aspirations.
But this appears to be a pipe dream, in the light of recent crises at the SABC, including the latest multiple-level conflict among a senior manager, the acting group chief executive, and the board, the communications minister’s involvement, the apparent disquiet felt by some board members and another board resignation, just when four replacements have been found for previous outgoing board members.
What is at stake, though, is not just boardroom machinations, alleged political interference and an institution and its acting managers caught in a seemingly unending game of musical chairs. At stake is the health of South African society and its future.
The SABC is a unique institution because it is, by law, the sole public broadcaster. Its ownership is vested in all South Africans. It is the only media organisation the public is obliged to pay for (through a licence fee) and it also receives a government grant from the public fiscus. Its board is chosen in a public process and must reflect South African society in terms of gender, race, disability, geographic location, skills and expertise.
The SABC has the widest reach of all media, broadcasting in all 11 official languages. In some parts of the country its radio stations provide communities with their only access to information and entertainment. Its African-language radio stations are the only media able to transcend barriers of illiteracy. Its programming, as stipulated in its licences, is expected to be diverse and to cater for the needs of all South Africans for information, communication, culture and entertainment.
No advertiser or marketer wishing to reach a large market can ignore the SABC. It has awesome power, by any definition. It has awesome potential, too, to advance democracy and development in ways that can create a just society for all.
‘Values of the Constitution’
The SABC has always had the potential to be the embodiment of a South African society that lives up to the values of the Constitution. There is a long history of desire among South Africans that the SABC be an institution that makes these values a living reality. This history includes the vision of a diversity of actors involved in the struggle against apartheid who wanted freedom of expression, media freedom, independent and critical public broadcasting and effective independent regulation.
There is now consensus that the SABC has not lived up to the vision of an independent public broadcaster that serves the public interest. In fact, it has been found guilty of denying the right to freedom of expression by banning certain commentators from the airwaves.
The current state of the SABC can be seen as a reflection of aspects of the state of South Africa’s public institutions in general.
First, the specific policy and regulatory frameworks governing the SABC are outdated and require urgent renewal.
Second, the SABC has chronic problems with its board, which is meant to represent public ownership and provide direction for the corporation. Recently, its board has disintegrated in ways that undermine the idea of public stewardship of social institutions. These problems have given those who advocate privatisation evidence of why public ownership is either an outdated idea, reminiscent of failed socialist and communist experiments, or is inherently unworkable. Parliament’s board-selection process needs to be freed from political partisanship.
Third, the SABC is rudderless. Its top leadership is in an “acting” capacity and has been so for more than a year. The department of communications, under which the SABC inappropriately falls, has an acting director general and relatively new minister. A much-needed policy review does not appear to be on the horizon. As last week’s events demonstrated, this situation can only lead to a deepening of the crisis, putting the institution into freefall.
Fourth, the SABC has suffered major financial blows, which have two causes: a funding model that is flawed and inappropriate for a public broadcaster and financial mismanagement linked to poor strategy. Although the SABC alone enjoys the benefit of a licence fee, only 25% of eligible licence fee-payers pay, and the public grant covers only 2% to 3% of its needs. The dominant source of funding is advertising revenue, which can lead to the undermining of its editorial and programming independence.
Dependence on advertising is one reason, on television and even some radio stations, there is a bias towards English or the larger African languages. The funding model explains the lack of diverse programming, especially the lack of more locally made programmes in which South Africans can see people like themselves. So, where the South African Constitution speaks strongly on the issue of gender equality, the SABC imports and produces programmes that reinforce gender inequality and gender-based violence. The opportunity has been lost for South African television producers to make the type of programming that would communicate gender struggles for social justice.
It is true that we have popular locally made soaps that demonstrate high levels of creativity, but these do not break the mould of American popular television. They do not tap into our own rich tradition of African storytelling.
A crisis of this magnitude in the major means of communication and cultural representation in South Africa is a crisis of our society and can only impede the society’s democratic and socioeconomic goals. Urgent steps need to be taken to arrest the damage and put the SABC and ultimately South African society on a healthy trajectory towards a sustainable democratic society, as envisaged in the Constitution.
The policy framework, as expressed in the amended Broadcasting Act of 1999, is outdated. What is needed even more urgently is a policy overhaul that recognises the changing nature of the media and the communications landscape in South Africa.
A new policy framework should recognise the new digital platforms that have changed how audiences access programmes, including those of the SABC. The review should be driven not by political objectives but by broader democratic goals and it should be based on research that is inclusive of all sectors of society.
The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) needs to play a more proactive role to ensure that the SABC meets its licence conditions. Icasa must regulate to promote freedom of expression and to protect the editorial and programming independence of the SABC. So far it has played such a passive role, most citizens are not even aware it exists.
Parliament needs to play its part in arresting the crisis by asking for and participating in policy and regulatory reforms. Otherwise its committee on communications is reduced to crisis management of the SABC instead of oversight.
The ANC as the governing party needs to play a role that is both in its own interest and in that of the broader society. A dysfunctional SABC actually works against a ruling party’s programmes. A public broadcaster in which there is perceived to be political interference also compromises the governing party and causes its messages to be doubted.
A credible SABC that enjoys editorial and programming independence is a platform for a governing party to get fair coverage for its policies and programmes. Control of the SABC by the ruling party has such a bad history, it is not a viable long-term strategy for helping to create a new society.
Professor Tawana Kupe is an associate professor of media studies and dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Wits University