SABC rot starts at Luthuli House

2014-02-23 14:00

It is not in the interest of SA to have a national broadcaster that grovels at the feet of the ­governing party.

A few years ago I took a pair of Ghanaian editors on a tour of the magnificent city of Johannesburg, this work of art that God created on the eighth day after a good rest.

The visitors marvelled at the glitz of Sandton.

They were overwhelmed by the bustle and chaos of Hillbrow – prompting them to utter hectic xenophobic comments about their West African neighbours that would have made staff at the Lindela Repatriation Centre for undocumented migrants proud of their jobs.

They were awed by the majestic mine dumps that beautify the city’s landscape (and which deserve Unesco heritage site status).

But, being journalists, they were most blown away by the twin towers that dominate the Auckland Park skyline.

When I told them it was the SABC building, they were astounded.

They stood staring at them and took pictures to show their colleagues at Ghana Broadcasting Corporation.

They enquired about the goings on inside those two tall buildings.

I smugly and patriotically rattled off the work of the SABC: the TV channels, the almost two dozen radio stations, the soap operas, the recording studios and the dramas.

But my jingoism only allowed me to tell them of the fictional dramas that are shot inside the towers and I conveniently omitted the real-life dramas that play out in the corridors of power.

The broadcaster has become synonymous with the dramas and soaps that it beams to millions every day.

These are dramas that even the corporation’s best scriptwriters would be hard pressed to write.

They are tragic dramas that have resulted in the SABC lurching from one crisis to another, leaving it unable to live up to its true potential of being one of the planet’s great broadcasters.

Except for Zwelakhe Sisulu, its first CEO in the democratic era, all the corporation’s leaders have left with deep knife wounds in their backs and with cracks in their ribcages.

Dozens of key executives at other operational levels have succumbed to the same fate.

Boards have been warzones where members battle each other instead of focusing on governance and strategy.

The last two boards could not survive the warring and collapsed before their terms were up.

This dysfunction at board and executive levels has had a direct impact on the ability to carry out its mandate.

Amid this governance chaos, runaway expenditure and a lack of control have plunged the corporation into debt and resulted in the Auditor-General issuing a disclaimer on the corporation’s finances.

Productions have had to be cut back and independent producers have been brought to their knees by the SABC’s failure to pay for or commission work.

The true puppet masters

On the news front, despite the best efforts of dedicated journalists, SABC news has been overtaken in ratings by nimble and better managed rivals in the commercial media space.

Credibility has been a major factor here, with alert audiences preferring news they can trust rather than what they perceive to be the master’s voice.

While the SABC’s mandarins have been warring, rival MultiChoice has also stolen the march on sport, the ultimate audience magnet.

MultiChoice now has a firm hold on football, cricket and rugby – the nation’s major audience pullers.

The SABC has the protection and generosity of the government to thank for its continued access to national team games and for the crumbs it gets in terms of domestic games.

With the loss of these sports has come the loss of revenue and, equally importantly, the loss of valuable expertise.

Ask anyone who has been associated with the SABC what the root cause of this dysfunction is and they will point you in the direction of a building in Sauer Street in the Johannesburg CBD – the ANC’s headquarters at LuthuliHouse, which is where the puppet strings are manipulated from.

It is there that the party bosses make sure that the public broadcaster does not stray from what they believe should be its mandate: To promote and protect the party.

Board members are nominated and vetted at party headquarters.

The long-list for SABC board nominations arrives raw at LuthuliHouse, where party heavyweights sit with members of the communications study group and weed out those they believe would not make good deployees.

This in itself is a legitimate process as every individual or entity has a right to nominate candidates for the board and submit lists to Parliament.

The problem is the motivation and criteria.

What the ANC wants out of board members is not the ability to exercise oversight over this crucial institution and guide strategy, but the ability to look after the party’s interests.

This has resulted in the appointment of extremely weak boards on which there are only a handful of individuals who are fit to steer a multibillion-rand ship.

The skilled ones are invariably also “loyal and disciplined cadres of the glorious movement”, as the party likes to call its most dedicated members.

It does not stop there. The CEO appointment, with its attendant power over editorial written into the SABC’s policies, is also given a nod from the high priests in Joburg’s CBD.

The same goes for other key positions in the corporation.

(To be fair, this process does not only throw up dullards. Some gems have been unearthed, only to be frustrated by the environment they have to operate in. Former CEO Peter Matlare is a case in point).

Is it any wonder then that boards that are put in place for purposes other than the interests of the company and the public soon lose their way?

In the faction-ridden world of ANC politics, the mandate becomes even more confused.

Board members and executives find themselves fulfilling conflicting interests of party factions and they turn on each other.

The less scrupulous among them use the chaos to fulfil their own interests. Chaos reigns.

Before self-righteous fingers are pointed at the post-Polokwane crowd, it bears noting that this practice goes back to the Mandela years when the ANC was rightfully concerned about transforming the SABC.

It was a legitimate process aimed at having in place the right people to exorcise the ghosts of the National Party’s SABC and turn it into a true public broadcaster serving the interests of South Africans instead of a state broadcaster serving the interests of the party in power.

Somewhere along the way the mission got forgotten.

Party apparatchiks realised that the Afrikaner Broederbond was not so stupid after all and that control of the SABC was key to maintaining the Nats’ 46-year grip on power.

The “deployment of cadres” to the SABC then became a power grab rather than a transformative act. It became about control.

If South Africa is to rescue the SABC from its state of permanent crisis and help it be the world-class broadcaster it should be, the governing party needs to divest itself of the notion that the SABC belongs to it.

The rot will only stop when the ANC realises that it is not in the interests of the country to have a dysfunctional SABC that kowtows to LuthuliHouse.

Those tall towers should be a source of pride for South Africans and not an object of ridicule.

Makhanya is editor at large

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