Public institution crisis

2008-07-14 00:00

The ping-pong of purges, counter-purges and court challenges between the suspended SABC CEO Dali Mpofu, its suspended head of news Snuki Zikalala, and their board, has turned into a farce.

Firstly, the paralysing divisions in the African National Congress (ANC) between President Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma are now being mirrored in every other public institution, including the SABC.

The SABC, like other institutions that are caught in the middle of this political tussle, lumbers on, on autopilot. In these crises, institutions such as the SABC seemingly carry on, but no new decisions or innovations can be made in such uncertainty. Neither can the SABC effectively play its role as a public broadcaster engaging South Africa in “collective conversation” in this political crisis in which the country is caught.

A large part of South Africa’s national identity that binds people together is centred around the new democracy, our Constitution and its values, and public institutions.

The SABC is one of these crucial national unifying institutions. It is not only a unifying symbol, but a source of enlightenment, even more crucial in South Africa with its high illiteracy levels, to promote the new constitutional values and to be the non-partisan platform where the country’s collective conversation over its values, priorities and direction, can take place.

Once any of these democratic institutions are undermined in such a way that their credibility is at stake, as is the case with the SABC, it has much more wide-ranging consequences. This is why getting the SABC right is an urgent national imperative that should not be left to politicians alone. Perhaps something good can still come out of this morass in which the SABC finds itself.

But then we must do the following. The SABC board, hand-picked by Mbeki last year, should all resign. Given all the shenanigans, it has now lost credibility. Mpofu and Zikalala should also resign, although it would be foolish to get rid of them only to replace them with the marionettes of another faction of the ANC.

Unless Mpofu, Zikalala and the board all go, this broadcaster will be unable to reclaim its credibility and the paralysis within it will continue. The way in which the board is appointed should also be changed.

Under no circumstances whatsoever must the current proposal be considered by the ANC’s parliamentary wing — that the current board resigns and a temporary board, made up of Mpofu, two other executive managers and four members, be appointed by the president. The problem is not the appointment of a temporary board — it is about not having any of the warring factions back at the helm of the SABC in any capacity, because it will only be seen as partisan.

Firstly, the SABC board must never again be puppets of any ruling party. Clearly, the way in which the board is currently appointed makes it open to manipulation by the president and the ruling party. This is at the heart of the crisis at the SABC today.

One way is to transform the way in which the board is selected is that it must be selected by a judge and a commission of experts, much as the way the judicial services commission appoints judges. This commission must be outside of Parliament, the government or any political party, but from where they can participate, but not dominate, to ensure that the new board is not dominated by the ruling party or business.

Parliament could be guaranteed some say. For example, one quarter of the nominees could go through the political process, but the rest must be appointed from outside. Those who are then elected with political credentials must be appointed from across the party spectrum, not only just from within the ruling party. Public participation in the nomination of the board must not only continue, but must be expanded. The chairperson of the SABC must be chosen by board members. The big problem with the SABC past and present is that it has not been accountable. Or rather, it has been accountable to the president only and one faction of the ANC, rather than to the SABC’s broadcasting mandate and responsibilities.

Board members must be the best the country has to offer, from wide-ranging backgrounds — academia, the arts, science, labour, business, civil society and journalism. Many of South Africa’s public institutions suffer from a credibility deficit because only mediocre people are appointed to lead them. These people are there only because of their political connection, or loyalty or pliability to the president or a faction of the ANC.

The costs of mediocrity and loyalty to narrow factional interests in the running of public institutions, including the SABC, in our diverse country with its mountains of political, social and economic problems, while operating in an increasingly hostile world, is just too high.

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