SABC’s dream board

Independence, financial health and creativity are the fundamental criteria needed, writes Ferial Haffajee

W hen our government chooses a board for the public broadcaster these days, everything but the best is taken into consideration.

Political favouritism is a factor: was the person a supporter of former president Thabo Mbeki?

What does President Jacob Zuma think of him or her?

Or, more accurately, what do the people around the president think of the potential board member?

Is the person too rich?

What ideology do they subscribe to?

All these factors matter none – or should matter none – if the sole focus was on rescuing the broadcaster and making it a fine example of public news presenting.

With great revenue potential (most people get their news and entertainment from the SABC’s radio stations and its TV channels), and the impact that only public broadcasting can still secure, we should choose the very best.

So, here, with a little help from our friends, is City Press’ choice.

To criteria first:

» Independence is key.

This means financial independence.

If you study the recent history of the SABC board carefully, it has come asunder because its incumbents have, in the main, eschewed this principle.

Too many have attempted to bring in their mates to get contracts, tried to win business for themselves, hired themselves as consultants to the SABC or have been so reliant on board fees for income that they became an executive board.

The board fee should not be an income and, if possible, board members should be asked to do the work as a service and not as a paid duty.

Political independence as far as the SABC is concerned is not going to happen.

Last time around, Parliament chose Ben Ngubane as chairperson and Thami ka Plaatjie as his deputy.

While both are recent defectees to the governing party, from the IFP and PAC respectively, they didn’t distinguish themselves.

It would be better to choose people from the ANC with a much clearer sense of the role of public broadcasting.

» The board should have three key characteristics: be incorruptible, experienced and inspired.

It is a tough combination to find all three in a single individual, which is why Parliament needs to take its time and consult widely.

» Financially astute.

All, or many, of the board members should be astute with numbers.

The broadcaster is technically bankrupt and the board needs to get it back into the black.

And when we say financially astute, this should be at the level of running multibillion-rand enterprises.

The people with ostensible financial experience on the last board really did not have hard auditing skills or experience as finance directors.

The SABC’s finances have been run by consultants for nearly a decade now and legal fees are massively overrun.

So the incumbents will need to audit the past and plug holes quite ruthlessly.

» Creativity.

What is the SABC about, in essence?

The excellent and competitive production of news and current affairs programmes.

Then, the SABC is about commissioning excellent public broadcasting programmes to put on its platforms (3 TV channels and 20 radio stations).

It is not a stage for political ambition, nor is it a dumping ground for old cadres, or an arm of government.

It should represent the firmament of Mzansi’s creativity and be the heartbeat of journalistic development, as well as programme-making.

It used to be this before the current era of wrack and ruin, and good leaders could return it to a place that reflects the nation and represents the best of public programming.

So, here’s our choice for people to lead it into a golden era.

As chair, we would choose Joel Netshitenzhe and as his deputy, Yacoob Abba Omar.

These two leaders completely reshaped the Government Communication and Information System from the the moribund SA Communication Service.

They are fine managers, good communicators and have standing and authority from numerous audiences.

Both are trusted by the ANC as they are sons of it, but they’re not hacks.

To get the finances right, we would choose auditing firm PricewaterhouseCooper’s chief executive, Suresh Kana, and Bheki Sibiya from the Chamber of Mines, as well as SABMiller’s Vincent Maphai.

All three are no-nonsense people who speak truth to power.

They could do the hard work of paring down the debt while finding funding envelopes for the content that must be produced.

If they are not available, billionaire Patrice Motsepe might be enticed away from Sundowns to rescue something else, while the businessman, Peter Vundla, has done an excellent job as director of the Mail & Guardian.

The board needs creative éminences grises who will not allow it to sink into the caterwauling and gossiping mess it has become.

We choose two writers and elders whom no one would dare mess with for fear of a tongue-lashing: Barbara Masekela and Njabulo Ndebele.

In most circles, Peter Matlare and Zwelakhe Sisulu (the latter sadly passed on) were recognised as two of the best post-apartheid CEOs. Matlare is now comfortably in business, but perhaps he can be enticed back to assist.

Matlare was a brain at mixing the mandates of the SABC, using the commercial services to fund the public mandate.

He made the broadcaster commercially viable and didn’t play politics.

If we accept that the core function of the SABC is to produce good content, then it needs people who know how to identify these and understand the value chain.

Our choice is varied but limited because nobody on the board must be getting work from the SABC.

So then, how about Nicola Galombik, who pioneered the SABC’s excellent educational programming?

Or Paula Fray, an esteemed journalist and trainer?

The SABC might even consider getting outside help – like Joel Kibazo, the famed Ugandan journalist who knows SA well and is a regular producer and commentator for the BBC; or Dele Olojede, a Nigerian editor based in Joburg and one of our continent’s only Pulitzer prize-winning journalists.

And, for the essential technical skills, what about former MTN boss Phuthuma Nhleko, with other people like him who could lift the broadcaster into its digital future?

The SABC should be making fine soap operas, there is no need for its board to resemble one.

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