SABC in danger of becoming a state broadcaster

10 June 2010

The SABC is in the news again – for all the wrong reasons – again.  We are almost getting used to this.  This time however it is different.  This time after an interim board had worked tirelessly to secure a loan agreement to allow the SABC to operate, after so many committed staff had ensured that despite the chaos the SABC still goes on air, even with one or two good programmes, ( I would have said three or four but these other two are just repeats.  Even the new 50/50 is a sad shadow of itself with more glitz but far less quality and content). 

This time is different, because it also comes off the back of a very very serious report from the Auditor General that stressed the importance of good corporate Governance.  This time, we had the greatest level of public participation in the nomination of a new board, and this time aside from one or two people, the board was welcomed and supported by most stakeholders.  This time, when the news first broke that Dr Ngubane had acted unilaterally (by his own admission) to appoint Mr Phil Molefe as head of news the majority of the board met and issued a comprehensive press release, the nub of which was that Mr Phil Molefe’s appointment was null and void.  This time, we had hope that the SABC would actually not only rise above the latest disregard for corporate governance, but that it would do so with efficiency, due process and moral authority.  Yes in the early days of this latest crisis there was hope. Despite the SABC’s ridiculous decision to spend R26 million at the Sandton Convention Centre, to be close to FIFA, there was hope.

But then, despite calls from the very civil society bodies (SOS Coalition) that had nominated him, Dr Ngubane didn’t resign.  Instead he went to China.  Literally.  On his return; still nothing.  And then even more bizarre the GCEO apparently on instruction from Dr Ngubane, and despite having knowledge of the Boards decision to declare Mr Molefe’s appointment null and void, went ahead and announced Mr Phil Molefe as the new head of news anyway.  No explanation to the public, no justification.  It gets worse, because then the rumours start to fly about interference from the Minister and one paper, the Sowetan reports the Minister’s spokesperson Tiyani RIkhotos as saying that the Minister had in fact appointed Mr Phil Molefe at a meeting with Dr Ngubane.  Nothing from the board. More rumours apparently the SABC Board have been told not to speak in public about the rumours.  And then the head of radio news resigns, apparently to take early retirement.  According to the M&G, it is because she was under pressure to withdraw stories about Mr Phil Molefe’s contentious appointment.

I have always been one of the SABC’s strongest supporters, believing that despite its faults (and there are many) it has the potential to be a great public broadcaster.  However, if Mr Phil Molefe’s appointment is allowed to stand, if Dr Ngubane doesn’t do the honourable thing and resign or be removed by Parliament, and if strong action is not taken against the GCEO Mr Solly Mokoetle, and if the formal process for appointment of head of news is not allowed to be completed, we will have (what I genuinely feel is) lost our last chance at having a real public broadcaster.  These violations are so clear, so obvious and so disrespectful to the people of South Africa that, if they are allowed to continue, our fight will have to move from supporting a public broadcaster in distress to one of how to manage a state broadcaster.

Funnily enough just a few weeks ago the Sunday Times ran a front page story on the stiff sentences that would be meted out to World Cup Touts, i.e. those who sold fraudulent FIFA tickets.  Aside from the fact that this story seems to suggest we have our priorities clearly mixed up (World Cup fraudulent tickets over something like gender based violence for stiff sentences and urgent policing) the aspect that stood out was a block quote, “It wont be good for South Africa’s image if we have thousands of people being turned away from matches.”

Somehow in my mind the fact that the Official broadcaster of the World Cup is, if the current status remains unchanged, on the verge of becoming a state broadcaster, will I think do our country’s image a lot more damage than somebody being turned away from a game because they have a fraudulent ticket.