Five SABC boards in five years? What hope for change?


Over the last two weeks of August, the South African parliament interviewed its 36 shortlisted candidates for the board of public service broadcaster SABC. These interviews came at a precarious time for the SABC, just shortly after it came into, and is only just recovering from, a debt of over R700m, the only possible solution being a R1.47bn commercial loan which had to be guaranteed by government. Perhaps, more significantly, these interviews came less than six months after the catastrophic implosion of the Ngubane board which was appointed in 2010.

This was the board South Africans had put their faith in for a structural and material change in the beleaguered public broadcaster, after the dissolution of a board which, in 2007, had overseen the financial meltdown and political capture of the institution. The Ngubane board saw egos, a lack of direction and equally rudderless executive interventions from then Minister of Communications, Dina Pule, which precipitated internal divisions and tore it asunder in a bitter and public display.

Not five years and four boards later, here we stand again, waiting for the announcement of the fifth board, wondering whether we’ll see any fundamental change in our public broadcaster, and speculating whether and just how long the new board will last.

In recent years, the SABC has not been short of exceptional and respectable individuals on its board. It has been able to attract well-skilled candidates who demonstrate a commitment to public broadcasting in the public benefit and make a tangible contribution in the lives of the majority of the people of South Africa and beyond, who depend on the SABC for the information, education and entertainment needs. So why has our public broadcaster been so obstinately unable to reform? What is it about the environment in the public broadcasting space which has led to the perceived collapse and consequent lack of confidence in the SABC as a trusted institution which should reflect and shape our lives?

Foremost in the vision of South Africans and, indeed, civil society, for a stable, sustainable and successful SABC is a visionary and accountable leadership which can demonstrate a commitment to independence and clean governance. Perhaps, this is what has been lacking in the SABC for all these years. And, in my view, perhaps this can still be achieved.

It is at this crucial moment that parliament needs to ensure the appointment of high- flying, skilled and accountable leaders with integrity and a deep sense of public service to the board. Further, it is at this crucial moment that we need to see the board agitate robustly on our behalf regarding the relationship between the SABC and the Minister of Communications as sole shareholder of government. Our public broadcaster should be unmistakeably distinguished from a state broadcaster subject to the whim and objectives of the ruling party of the day. It is also, perhaps most of all, at this crucial moment that we need to see the new SABC board supported by all stakeholders and ourselves, the public it serves, which necessarily requires a greater measure of openness, honesty and direct engagement from the board throughout its term.

The question that remains then is – will parliament rise to the occasion? Will the SABC board? And, most importantly, will we?

This column first appeared in the September 2013 print issue of ScreenAfrica which may be found here.

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