Trashing the SABC

2008-05-14 00:00

What a mess! The CEO suspends the head of news; the board of directors suspends the CEO; the parliamentary portfolio committee passes a vote of no confidence in the board.

Such a slapstick performance would be worthy of a Monty Python comedy show were it not so tragic. For what we are witnessing is the destruction of an immensely important national institution. The SABC, with its three television channels and 14 radio stations, is one of the most powerful broadcasting organisations in the world. It should be the central pillar in the building of our new democracy, for a well-informed public is an organic necessity for the healthy functioning of a democratic system.

Instead it has become a snake pit of venomous contestation between political factions bent on seizing this national institution for their own partisan purposes.

They have trashed it in the process. Nearly all its best professional journalists, broadcasters, programmers and film makers have either been fired or have quit in disgust. Those who are left cower in unproductive corners, trying to survive the hissing snakes who dominate the place. As a result the SABC has lost all quality and credibility.

The sad thing is that the African National Congress knows better. In the early years after its unbanning it committed itself to the project of restructuring the SABC, which had been perverted into a shameful propaganda organ by the old apartheid regime. Under the direction of Pallo Jordan, then head of the ANC’s information and publicity department, and his deputy, Gill Marcus, the ANC linked up with media organisations to launch a major training campaign aimed at building a new pool of journalists, broadcasters and administrators that could be drawn on to restructure the SABC in preparation for the new South Africa.

The emphasis throughout this urgent campaign was on the importance of a “public broadcaster”, as distinct from a state broadcaster, that would focus on the broad public interest rather than the narrow political interests of the ruling party. The campaign elicited enormous public interest after years of resentment at the slanted and dull SABC. Public broadcasters in Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States sent trainers to this country and invited some of the most promising local talent to their countries for on-the-job training. They poured millions into the project.

All of which has been wasted. Hardly anyone who went through that intense programme remains at the SABC. They were there for a time, providing South Africa with a Prague Spring of good public broadcasting that gave excellent coverage of our first democratic election, but they melted away as the political apparatchiks took over.

The high point was the selection of the new South Africa’s first SABC board — an extraordinarily democratic affair, even by international standards.

The process was thrashed out between the government and the ANC as a sideshow to the constitutional negotiations taking place at the World Trade Centre. Civil society organisations were invited to submit nominations, from which a carefully balanced, multiracial selection panel of eight lawyers, co-chaired by two Supreme Court judges, Piet Schabort and Ismail Mohamed, who were also joint chairmen of the Negotiating Council itself, would choose a short list to be interviewed for positions on a 25-member board.

There were more than 500 nominees, from which 45 were short-listed. The interviews took place in public, before packed audiences in a cavernous hall at the World Trade Centre, and they were televised live.

One would have thought 45 job interviews for appointments to the board of directors of a parastatal corporation would not make for gripping television, but such was the level of public fascination born of years of exasperation at the abuse of the SABC that the hearings drew some of the highest audience ratings in the broadcaster’s history.

As it turned out, then-President F. W. de Klerk tarnished the process by vetoing six of the selected board members and appointing his own replacements. He had the legal power to do so, but it violated an agreement reached by the constitutional negotiators and caused public outrage.

More seriously it set a precedent, right at the start, of politically motivated presidential interference in the selection of the broadcaster’s board of directors — so De Klerk must carry some of the blame for the corruption that followed.

Nelson Mandela was able to redress some of De Klerk’s damage by reinstating a few of the vetoed board members after he became president. For its part, the board was able to appoint and support Zwelakhe Sisulu as CEO. He had the advantages of being both a good professional journalist and a member of ANC royalty, which enabled him to withstand pressures from above. So for the next four years the SABC — and the South African public — enjoyed its Prague Spring of decent broadcasting.

Then the rot set in. It began when the first board’s term ran out and a new method of selecting the board was instituted, with the parliamentary select committee on communications interviewing the nominees and selecting a list of names for submission to the president.

The moment the selection process devolved upon a panel of politicians, it inevitably became politicised.

As the ruling party with a 70% majority, the ANC dominates all parliamentary select committees. Two other factors compound the partisanship: the electoral list system which makes MPs more beholden to their party leaders than to their constituents; and the ANC’s habit of “deploying cadres” to key positions in public institutions.

That ensures that they do the leadership’s bidding. They get “redeployed” if they don’t.

So it is the selection system that is the root cause of the SABC’s chronic malaise. First it resulted in a drive to capture control of the broadcaster to serve the Mbeki administration’s ends; now it is caught in the fratricidal struggle between the Mbeki and Jacob Zuma factions of the ANC.

This abusive process will not end until the selection system itself is changed. It must be removed from the political arena, where the ruling party will always dominate, and placed in the hands of an independent commission.

Such a commission could be modelled on the Judicial Services Commission which selects the country’s judges. A Broadcasting Services Commission could be established to interview candidates and appoint the boards of directors of the SABC, the signal distributing company Sentech, and the Independent Communications Authority, Icasa.

The precise composition of such a commission should be a matter for public discussion, but to give the gist of my proposal let me suggest the following: a body of 13, chaired by a retired Constitutional Court judge; two practising editors nominated by the South African National Editors Forum; two teachers of journalism; one representative of the film-making industry; the Minister of Broadcasting; four MPs, at least two representing opposition parties; and two trade unionists.

There will no doubt still be political pressures and complaints. No one, no board, can be perfect. But a conscientious effort to adhere to the principles of fairness and balance will win public respect over time — and that is the most one can hope for.

• Allister Sparks, a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, is a veteran South African journalist and political commentator.

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