Max du Preez

Tune in, drop out

2009-04-01 08:36

Max du Preez

It was supposed to be one of the jewels in our national crown: our public broadcaster, the most modern and sophisticated television station in Africa with one of the biggest news teams in the entire world.

It has become a sorry and terrible mess. Senior managers are being fired on a monthly basis for stealing money or for gross incompetence; the board is fighting itself and the CEO and has spent many millions in trying to fire him; independent enquiries have found that the head of news acted unethically and unprofessionally, but no-one dared touch the man.

The SABC is hundreds of millions of rands in the red, thanks to theft, wastage, incompetence and Snuki Zikalala's grandiose scheme to have a news bureau in every region of Africa and an African service that is watched by only a handful of people.

The heart of our television production industry is in the process of being ripped out because the SABC is not paying private production houses for work done.

And another thing: the SABC's licensing department has been hunting me down for a year now with fanciful threats and legal documents. They simply won't believe that I don't have a television set and thus don't need a licence. (I'm letting them sweat before I tell them the TV set in my house belongs to my wife and is indeed properly licensed.)

Light at the end of the tunnel

But wait, there's light at the end of the tunnel. The Bulgarian-trained chief commissar of SABC news, Comrade Snuki, is not getting a new contract at the end of the month, I hear. (I also hear he's trying very hard to get a foothold in the television news industry in Zimbabwe - would explain his earlier blacklisting of voices critical of Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF, don't you think?)

Here's more. The woman who proved herself to be the worst ever member of the SABC Board because of her constant interfering and her Stalinist ideas of what news is, Christine Qunta, has just resigned. (She was also Zikalala's strongest ally on the board.)

It's only a matter of time before the entire SABC board collapses. And a new minister of Communications, in whose portfolio the SABC falls, will be appointed before the end of the month.

What a great opportunity to restore the SABC to its former glory of 1994 - 2000, when Zwelakhe Sisulu was CEO and the corporation operated as a proper public broadcaster rather than a state or party mouthpiece and a private fiefdom for ANC comrades.

The new board should be appointed through the same process as the first board of the new SABC of 1994: a multi-party, multi-disciplinary committee should choose members from a list of candidates after interviewing all of them - just like we have appointed judges since 1994.

The new board should draw up an airtight code for itself and its news management stipulating who has what jurisdiction. And it should appoint a proper, respected and experienced journalist as head of news instead of a party propagandist. There is an obvious candidate: Pippa Green, former head of SABC radio and someone with a strong record.

Mandate

The new head of news should get a mandate to cut all the dead wood: the freeloaders, the propagandists and the incompetents waiting for their pensions to become available.

And television licences should be scrapped. For every R100 the licensing department bring in, R80 is spent on the vast staff and logistics of the department - and legal processes.

More importantly, there are people like me who have DSTV subscriptions and very rarely if ever watch SABC programmes. To force them to pay licences simply leads to a resentment of the SABC.

But it is true that the SABC has a mandate as a public broadcaster that makes it hard to be profitable - it has to serve all the language groups, for instance, and deliver education programmes.

When there is an independent and legitimate board in charge of the SABC, it would be acceptable to most, I suspect, if the corporation gets a direct subsidy from the Treasury.

There are still many really good people at the SABC. South Africa needs the SABC. Can we get it right this time please? President-to-be Zuma, please?

Send your comments to Max.

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