Board must let SABC leaders do their jobs

2010-09-04 10:19

Peter Matlare. Mathatha Tsedu. Joe Thloloe. Barney Mthombothi. John Perlman. Judi Nwokedi. Jimi ­Matthews. The list of ­leaders that the SABC has eaten up and spewed out continues.

We are squandering a national ­resource that should be at the heart of debates about the role of the media in society.

The public broadcaster, with its three TV channels and 18 radio stations, is a vital democratic resource for its citizens. With offices in places where other editors can only dream about, it can provide a wealth of coverage.

But in the past 20 years, the SABC has been a soap opera rather than a producer of the genre.

The great hope, ushered in a year ago when Parliament overhauled the board and set it on a course for growth, lies in tatters again.

This week, the battle for the SABC was politicised when MK veterans put into the public domain a damaging set of claims about the board, clearly egged on by suspended chief executive Solly Mokoetle.

Again, personal ambition trumps the public good.

It’s clear that Parliament erred in its choice of board.

There are several excellent members but too many don’t understand their roles.

Board chairperson Ben Ngubane may be experienced, but claims emanating from the current imbroglio suggest he is highly executive-minded.

If, as claimed, he told board members that the president wanted Phil Molefe as head of news and current affairs, then those members should publicly back the claim.

The ANC and its acolytes need to ­decide whether the broadcaster is going to follow a model of relative or absolute independence from government.

If it wants a broadcaster that is broadly aligned to the governing imperatives, one that is geared to giving exposure and exposition to public policy rather than take on the swashbuckling fourth estate role the rest of us play, then tell us so.

But don’t let this vital resource be a plaything of people with big egos any longer.

While some allegations about the board are inaccurate and defamatory, it is clear that it lacks sophistication or experience.

It is replete with directors who believe they are executive managers. One is ex-journalist David Niddrie who, when I spoke to him last week, sounded exhausted from running the SABC.

It’s not his job. The broadcaster’s turnaround must be executed by its management and guided by its board.

The board includes people who don’t know what they are doing but enjoy the power of doing it anyway like National Union of Metalworkers of SA president Cedric Gina, who needs a lesson in corporate governance.

He is behaving like a shop-steward holding weekly meetings rather than a non-executive director.

And it includes people who ­really should know better like lawyer Peter Harris who adroitly carried out work for the SABC but whose nous should have told him not to muddy the waters.

One of the greatest conflicts of the SABC is that its board members have always tried to do business with it. This board should have drawn a line in the sand.

And the board should not have tried to get rid of Mokoetle .

No post-apartheid chief executive at the SABC has lasted longer than a year or two and the pattern is enormously destabilising.

Neither Mokoetle nor Molefe are top-drawer but the SABC will fail to attract the cream of the crop when reputations are threatened by its crises.

It would be better if executives were allowed to do their job under the watchful eye of a professional and hands-off board.

If they fail in a year or two and the quality of broadcasting does not substantially improve with concomitant revenues, the board can institute an inquiry to determine the root causes.

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