SABC — staggering but still upright

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Christmas is a time to breathe out, take stock and reconsider. This year, this is also true for the public broadcaster and all those who care about it. Justine Limpitlaw, the Chair of the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition’s legal sub-committee, outlines the situation at the public broadcaster, how we got there and what needs to be done in 2019 to keep the SABC afloat.

Where are we?

The SABC ends 2018 staggering but still upright.

In a 13 December letter, the SABC CEO Madoda Mxakwe informed stakeholders that the SABC’s executive directors are in their posts and “have no intention of resigning”. In light of recent events, such grace under pressure is not just reassuring, it’s heroic.

Mxakwe reiterated that the SABC management is implementing the turnaround strategy and is “dealing with the financial consequences of well-documented governance failures.” Although no names are mentioned, the devastation caused by the Hlaudi Motsoeneng wrecking-ball is clear and the financial challenges are legion. It is laughable that Motsoeneng’s new party is called the African Content Movement given the debilitating damage done to public radio and television by his grandiose and self-aggrandising schemes. Real purveyors of African content are facing a particularly bleak Christmas this year given the SABC’s inability to pay content providers on time.

It is also clear that the remaining four board members have not wilted under the pressure of four other directors’ sudden resignations in recent weeks. They, too, are remaining in their posts, albeit unable to implement any decisions as the board is inquorate. This is very important. Why? Because it means that the cycle of board collapse – interim board appointments – final board appointments – board collapse (replay) is broken and will not take place for a fourth time in the past decade on this board’s watch.

This will prove to be a vital stabilising factor in my view.

How did we get here?

The list of vacancies is now at crisis levels with eight vacant posts, rendering the board inquorate. Whose fault is that? In my view three different sets of actors must share the blame:

First, parliament has been tardy in sitting for months and months with vacancies on a board with the very difficult task of stabilising the SABC. There should be no excuse for not filling one vacancy. Much less, for leaving four seats empty for over seven months. And, now the board vacancies have risen to eight.

The parliamentary committee responsible for board appointments has now apparently agreed that the posts will be filled in January 2019. Let’s see what kind of women and men are appointed by our parliament. I would hope that they are people willing to act in the public interest who do not take directions from party-political entities. We need an independent public broadcaster, particularly as we go into an election year.

Second, the latest round of board resignations, four in less than a week, must raise eyebrows. It is clear that they did not act as one. The timing was not simultaneous and the reasons given were different but they did all formally request to be relieved of their directors’ duties “with immediate effect”.

The Broadcasting Act specifically requires resigning directors to serve a three-month notice period. This is not provided for accidentally and the provision is there specifically to prevent the possibility of a hamstrung board following mass resignations. It also allows parliament, if they act promptly, to appoint a replacement before the resignation takes effect.

Why did they all request to be allowed to resign with immediate effect? Sadly they have not taken the public into their confidence by choosing not to make their resignation letters public. So we are still in the dark as to the reasons why they were unwilling to serve out their notice periods, just over a year since their appointments, having undertaken to serve for five years. This is very disappointing and ought to, in my view, count against them should they be nominated to serve as SABC directors in future.

Third, the President also has to be questioned on his decision. By exercising his discretion to accept the four board resignations with immediate effect, he has single-handedly plunged the board into inquorate status. Why would he do that? In his wide-ranging interview with Xolani Gwala on 702 Talk Radio on 13 December, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that “the [board] members themselves came forward and said we want out… it is difficult to say I am not going to release you”. He didn’t elucidate further.

The SOS Coalition and Media Monitoring Africa have written to him asking him to provide in writing his reasons for that decision. Doubtless they will share them with the public. It is hard to imagine what justification there could be for granting a request not to serve out a notice period to avoid rendering the board inquorate.  The only exceptions to this might be an allegation such as the board acting illegally potentially implicating a director in criminal conduct; or a grave personal crisis, which was not the case as I understand it.

Political and economic elites with access to newspapers, DStv premium and the Internet do not rely on the SABC for their news and information but the majority of South Africans do. It is a critical point which bears repeating. The vast majority of South Africans rely on the SABC for their news and information. We ignore its crises and challenges at our peril. A state-captured SABC puts our very democracy at risk.

What needs to happen in 2019?

The board vacancies must be filled by people committed to serving the public interest

Treasury must stump up a government guarantee. This is NOT a bailout!  A guarantee would allow the SABC’s creditors to extend it a line of credit which would enable them to implement the turnaround strategy they’ve proposed.

With the SABC on a more sustainable footing, the hard tasks of improving programming while cost-cutting and preparing for the migration to digital TV will need to be faced.

These are tall orders but they can and must happen.


© Spotlight.Africa 2019

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

 

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SABC — staggering but still upright