SABC: Dare we hope for a new dawn?

2013-08-26 10:00

Prospective board members interviewed in frank parliamentary sitting.

‘This new board will need to speak truth to power” if it is to deal with the “gravy train” at the public broadcaster.

So said attorney Zola Majavu, one of 36 men and women vying for a position on the 12-person SABC board.

Over three days this week, the first 22 candidates were interviewed until deep into the night by Parliament’s portfolio committee on communications in Cape Town.

Majavu’s was the first interview and he set the tone for what was to come.

As candidates took the hot seat, their default setting was almost exclusively one of “dealing with the problems” at the SABC.

Problems like overbearing executives interfering with the board (acting COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng being the elephant in the room), of separating administrative and editorial management functions, of guarding against unwanted interventions by the communications minister, and of a lack of compliance with the Public Finance Management Act.

There were some gaps.

The issue of meeting local content quotas, for example, was not really raised.

But there was a distinct lack of sycophancy and defensiveness – even from short-listed members of the current interim board, who were all nominated by the ANC.

Instead, there was an air of openness and critical reflection.

It was downright unsettling.

In Cape Town this week, the interim board’s deputy chair Noluthando Gosa frankly admitted that the SABC has at times fallen foul of communications regulator Icasa, and that the latter has done nothing about it.

Several ANC candidates were critical of the SABC’s 24-hour, pay-channel news service. Of course, the frankness had as much to do with the questions being asked as the answers being given.

Despite occasional flare-ups between ANC and opposition members of the committee – Cope’s Juli Kilian at one point strode from the room in defiance – the committee created the space for difficult issues to be discussed.

They should be applauded.

Candidates without the requisite board experience and broadcasting insight were relatively swiftly dismissed.

A host of strong candidates with clear policy positions and solutions-driven answers emerged one after another.

Gosa, along with Kate Skinner, John Matisonn, Lumko Mtimde, Mahmood Mia, Paul Serote, William Gumede, Thembinkosi Bonakele and an unexpected outsider, Debbie Thompson, are all patently up to the job.

That’s almost a full board right there – with another three days and 14 candidates to go.

Okay, I’ll admit it can’t get much worse. This will be the fourth SABC board in five years.

We have seen other good boards crumble in a heap of infighting and political string-pulling by ministers like Dina Pule.

Yet at some point, public dissatisfaction will rise and bite the broadcaster.

We saw flashes of it all week. One candidate, Nomvuyiso Mhlakaza, even admitted to not paying her TV licence regularly.

Another candidate, civic-minded and previously little-known lawyer Thompson, said she wasn’t surprised – people pay their licences when a broadcaster is being well run and offering a quality service.

Now Pule is gone and this week’s interview process was opened by a new communications minister, Yunus Carrim.

Gumede, an academic and author, ended his interview by saying that the public broadcaster faced a “golden opportunity to become the next Al Jazeera”.

Part of me really wants to believe him.

Could we dare hope for a new dawn at the SABC?

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