Why this week’s SABC board interviews matter

The SABC building in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Picture: Yandisa Monakali
The SABC building in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Picture: Yandisa Monakali

Starting on Wednesday, and continuing through Friday, 36 shortlisted candidates will be interviewed for yet another SABC board that will have to emerge from the wreckage of Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s rule at the public broadcaster.

The SOS coalition and City Press will be following the interviews beat by beat and reporting on our websites and our social media platforms.

In the last few years, we have witnessed the SABC devolve from a public broadcaster, to an institution that works to further political and commercial agendas that are not in the interest of South Africans.

Therefore, it is important for us to remember why the SABC matters. Hlaudi Motsoeneng was a painful example of what can happen when we, the South African public, do not exercise vigilance where our state owned enterprises are concerned.

More importantly, given our current political climate, and the looming 2019 national elections, the need for an independent  public broadcaster is now more urgent than ever

Why the SABC matters

An expert, quality board matters to anyone who believes in fair news, our national stories and the role of the SABC to educate the nation.

Though many argue, and convincingly so, that South Africa has come a long way since its segregated and unequal past, for many South Africans, inequality stubbornly remains part of their post-1994 realities.

Inequality also manifests in the ways South Africans access information and news.

Where they access it, how they access it, as well as if they are able to understand the information that they have access to.

In a country where just three billionaires own as much wealth as 50% of the population, where access to information is largely determined by how much one earns, the SABC is, for many South Africans, the only source of news and information.

Due to our multilingual context, our 11 official languages, it is hard to reach all people at all times because information has to be translated.

The public broadcaster is the most appropriate vehicle for disseminating information and news to such a diverse audience.

By providing information, education, and entertainment in all official languages, as well as preserving and developing the country’s linguistic and cultural heritage, the SABC plays a critical public information role.

A democracy cannot function effectively without an informed citizenry, and with its reach into nearly every household in South Africa, the SABC is crucial to the effective functioning of our democracy.

When the SABC fails to fulfil its democratic mandate, and fails to function effectively, it threatens the very foundations of our democracy.

This is our SABC board

The SABC needs to be accountable to its core constituent – the South African public. Although there are a number of existing opportunities for consultation with us, which include opportunities for the public to debate broadcasting legislation, selection of the SABC Board, and the SABC’s editorial policies, the processes governing these opportunities (and access to these) are not always sufficient or effective.

The Broadcasting Act outlines the following process for the appointment of SABC board members:

• The 12 non-executive members of the board must be appointed by the President on the advice of the National Assembly;

• The National Assembly selects the 12 board members from a shortlist that is compiled from a list of publically nominated applicants who have consented to serve on the board; and

• The candidates who make it on to the shortlist are then interviewed in Parliament and a final list of 12 is sent to the National Assembly

Section 13 (2) of the Broadcasting Act states that the non-executive members of the Board must be appointed in a manner ensuring:

- Participation by the public in a nomination process;

- Transparency and openness; and

- That a shortlist of candidates for appointment is published

Where’s our meaningful public participation?

But the SABC board appointment process has so far proven unable to sufficiently protect the broadcaster from political and commercial interference. It gives a minimal opportunity for South Africans to participate beyond the nominations stage, while there is no further obligation by Parliament, to be explicitly transparent in the remaining steps of the process, save for the requirement to publish the shortlist.

To strengthen this process, Parliament needs to embrace the principles of maximum public participation, transparency and political consensus across all stages of this process. By doing this, Parliament should be able to reduce the chances of appointing dishonest candidates, such as Ellen Tshabalala, who reportedly lied about her qualifications, as well as political interference between nomination and shortlisting stages, such as we have seen in the past.

Political interference, lack of independence, and the appointment of lacklustre candidates have contributed to the breakdown of corporate governance and gross financial negligence that has plagued the SABC for almost a decade. These crises in governance have repeatedly brought our public broadcaster to the brink of collapse.

What we need from this week

The SABC and the people of South Africa need a skilled, representative, and independently-minded SABC board that will uphold the public interest over commercial and/or political interests and agendas. The incoming SABC board should, as a result, ensure that the SABC’s independence is fiercely protected, and that its public mandate as a public broadcaster is fulfilled.

As we seek to restore the integrity of our public broadcaster, it has become increasingly important that the public hold the SABC accountable. As such, public participation and transparency must be strengthened so as to ensure active public engagement, while increasing the public’s influence on all aspects of public broadcasting, and our hard-won democracy.

*City Press’ coverage of the SABC board interviews was done in partnership with SOS coalition, a civil society coalition committed to, and campaigning for, public broadcasting that is in the public interest. Visit the SOS coalition for more.

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