SABC in limbo ahead of elections

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Despite President Cyril Ramaphosa urging Parliament to urgently interview and appoint new SABC board members “to avoid a leadership vacuum”, the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications appears to be in no hurry to compile a short list for the eight board vacancies at the public broadcaster.

Critics are accusing the committee’s ANC members of deliberately delaying the process.

The ANC, they claim, expected a total collapse of what is perceived to be an independent-minded board after a spate of resignations in December, but the remaining four members dug in their heels and refused to step down.

It now appears that the country’s largest and most relied upon media operation will go into the May 8 elections with a board that is not allowed to meet and take decisions.

The SABC is still battling to transform after the “editorial capture” of its newsrooms under its former leadership.

While presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko and the communications ministry’s Nthabeleng Mokitimi-Dlamini said last week that the appointments rest solely with Parliament and cannot be interfered with, committee chair Hlengiwe Mkhize did not respond to queries, including claims of a deliberate delay.

The agenda for the committee’s final meetings, which run from February 19 to March 26, has not been updated since the board resignations.

Parliament rises on March 20 as MPs start to campaign for their parties.

The current agenda contains only one mention of the SABC, and that refers to Tuesday, when the board will be “discussed” along with the board of the Media Development and Diversity Agency.

In December, MPs told City Press that the committee had agreed to meet before Parliament opened this year to agree on a short list of candidates, but that never happened.

Committee members told City Press last week they had expected CVs of applicants to have been delivered by now, so a short list could be compiled on Tuesday, but no CVs have been sent.

Read: Ramaphosa steps in as SABC board digs in its heels

“The ANC would rather have a broken SABC than an independent one during the elections,” alleged one well-placed source this week.

William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa said: “In seeking to deepen the governance crisis at the SABC, they [the committee] are deliberately seeking to destabilise our public broadcaster, and our democracy ... They potentially threaten free and fair elections.”

Approached for comment, DA committee member Phumzile van Damme claimed that the ANC “has deliberately delayed the filling of the eight vacancies”.

“There was a commitment in November to begin the process in early January. That did not happen. A commitment was made by the Chair of Chairs, Cedric Frolick, to expedite the process.

“That has not happened, as proved by the committee’s agenda for the term,” she said.

“I am sure the ANC has no qualms with the SABC operating in its current state, with an inquorate board which cannot make legally binding decisions and try to influence management.

“The SABC has shown its commitment to standing firm in protecting its independence, as proven in exposing [Communications Minister Stella] Ndabeni-Abrahams’ attempts to censor the SABC,” said Van Damme.

SABC sources said the minister, who has previously clashed with the board, had not apologised directly to the SABC or its journalists, whom she attempted to prevent from reporting on booing and protests taking place during the ANC’s manifesto launch in the Eastern Cape last weekend.

Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams

Kate Skinner, executive director of the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), together with other Sanef members, held an emergency meeting with Ndabeni-Abrahams last week.

Reporting on the meeting, Skinner said: “The minister has extended her unreserved apology with regard to the incident and assured Sanef of her unwavering support for media freedom.

“The minister also revealed during the meeting that she would be meeting with SABC management to address the incident.”

Mokitimi-Dlamini said the assumption that the minister had a rocky relationship with the SABC was “misplaced”, adding: “The minister’s role as a shareholder is to provide oversight and support the SABC, as the public broadcaster, to achieve its important mandate ... The minister is concerned about corporate governance, given the status of the board, and is consulting relevant stakeholders, including National Treasury, on the best legal approach, given the current state of affairs.”

An inquorate board means the minister has been meeting directly with the SABC’s management about a bank guarantee to bail the SABC out of a financial crisis that could lead to its collapse.

A guarantee is widely expected to be announced this week.

Diko said: “When it comes to the elections, there is a concern ... We reiterate our commitment that these positions need to be filled as fast as possible.”

SABC spokesperson Neo Momodu said: “SABC News successfully transformed itself as an independent and impartial news service since its relaunch in June 2018, and remains committed to providing uncompromising and unrestrained informative content.”

UPDATE Parliament says it intends to see a quorate SABC board by the elections

On Monday the parliamentary portfolio committee's chairperson, Hlengiwe Mkhize, responded to City Press' queries with the following statements:"The intent and commitment from the committee is that the SABC and all other entities that we play oversight have a full board and council. The advert to call for nomination of candidates who should serve in the SABC board in December 2018 bears testament to this point.

"First and foremost the first round of adverts for the SABC board last year was not representative of the demographic representation of the country. There was no adequate representation of females, hence the committee decided to readvertise. The committee did complete the shortlisting last year, but couldn’t proceed with the interviews because of the withdrawal of two chartered accountant candidates. This is the skill which the board had always highlighted as missing and critical to complement the board. The other challenge was the alignment of the committee programme with that of Parliament which always affects the business of the committee.

"The intention is to ensure that we leave the SABC with a full, quorate board ahead of the election, noting that it is a public broadcaster with a mandate to ensure that general citizens have access to information pertaining to the elections. We remain committed to ensuring that all board vacancies are filled before the rise of Parliament."

This story was updated on Monday, February 18 2019 to reflect the commentary from Mkhize.

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