What will Dali Mpofu’s term to date be remembered for?
Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and former editor of !_LT_EMMail & Guardian!_LT_/EM: I am not sure it can all be blamed on him, but it was on his watch that the SABC was reduced to cannibalism Ã¢Â€Â“ Parliament, the board, the executive and the head of news are all trying to eat each other (though they seem to be having trouble swallowing). It is an unseemly sight; a low point in an institution with a history of low points.
Jane Duncan, executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI): Possibly the one incident that will remain etched on many people’s minds was the interview Nikiwe Bikitsha conducted with Mpofu following the SABC board’s release of the findings of the Sisulu Commission of Enquiry (into the blacklisting of commentators).
It was clear from the interview that Mpofu was caught between a board who was hell-bent on vindicating Snuki Zikalala (group executive of news and current affairs), and a report that was unequivocal in its finding of wrongdoing on Zikalala’s part. He was not willing to announce the findings directly, and tried to spin them, but he had nowhere to hide.
It encapsulated what Mpofu will probably be remembered for: As someone who started out with good intentions, but who fell down at the critical moment, and who tried to hide his failure by digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole of denial.
Ruth Teer-Tomaselli, deputy dean at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and former SABC board member: To my knowledge, this is the first time in the more than 70 years of its history that the conflict between the chief executive and the board has resulted in a public skirmish. Though not unheard of, such disagreements have always been dealt with quietly, and in-house.
Wallace Chuma, lecturer in journalism and media studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT): He’ll be remembered for moving the SABC closer to centres of political power in South Africa Ã¢Â€Â“ notably the ANC and the Presidency. We’ll remember Mpofu for the rhetoric of Ã¢Â€Â˜total citizen empowerment’ in a context where the SABC was captive to corporate hierarchies for funding and to political elites for editorial and programming guidance. He’ll also probably be remembered for transforming the SABC into a newsmaker; something not enshrined in the broadcaster’s mandate.
What has improved under Mpofu’s leadership?
AH: One area in which bold and interesting things are being done is drama.
JD: The SABC moved away from the overly commercial focus of the Peter Matlare era. Mpofu’s Ã¢Â€Â˜broadcasting for total citizen empowerment’ represented a vision that the SABC and civil society could unite around, as it marked an attempt to found the SABC on proper public broadcasting values. The SABC has also commissioned more local content for television. Some truly interesting, even compelling, programmes have been aired. News and current affairs platforms have increased in several South African languages, leading to a more equitable spread of resources across language groups.
RT: The untrammelled power of the newsroom has been challenged. Mpofu has taken back the role of editor-in-chief, which is the rightful role of the SABC leadership.
WC: News coverage of Africa and international coverage have expanded remarkably under him. Non-news programming, such as educational and entertainment programmes, have also expanded and improved in terms of quality.
What has deteriorated?
AH: News and current affairs, general administration and management, as well as strategic direction.
JD: Staff morale has undoubtedly worsened, as Mpofu has presided over an institution where management and even board interference in editorial decision-making has become the order of the day. Programmes have been pulled for highly questionable reasons, fuelling a climate of deference
to authority, even to the point of self-censorship. So editorial independence has worsened, and has led to heightened tensions with external stakeholders. Many highly talented staff members have left the SABC. The SABC’s financial situation has worsened, although this can be attributed to a number of factors, both internal and external. Board and management relations have hit rock bottom.
RT: The quality of radio, particularly in English and Afrikaans. Talk radio has become repetitive, Ã¢Â€Â˜safe’ and banal. The rich variety of radio genres (including drama and readings), diversity of music programming, children’s programming and production of content for a wide range of audiences, have been reduced to a dreary sameness of mediocrity.
WC: I think the news and current affairs division will continue to haunt both Mpofu and Zikalala. It was during Mpofu’s term that the SABC was forced to institute commissions of enquiry following embarrassing developments such as the blacklisting of certain commentators and the failure to carry footage involving the booing of the Deputy President (Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka).
Reportage of politics, especially international affairs, became dull and predictable. Everything foreign was framed from the perspective of South African foreign policy. There was some diversity in local political reportage, but still the dominant frame was predictably pro-Mbeki. Under Mpofu, diversity of opinion within the SABC arguably became threatened, if the resignations of top journalists like Jacques Pauw, Vuyo Mvoko and John Perlman, among others, is anything to go by.
Should Mpofu be a part of the SABC’s future?
!_LT_STRONGAH:!_LT_/STRONG I am not sure how one can operate when one is at war with one’s board. Right or wrong, any CEO who does not have the confidence of his/her board cannot operate effectively and needs to find a way to move on.
JD: No. He is too closely associated with all the things that have gone wrong at the SABC recently.
RT: No. Both as a businessman and as a leader of people in an important cultural industry, he has shown little grasp of the importance of foresight and the ability to influence the cultural agenda of the country. His flip-flop allegiances to the perceived powers of politics do not bode well (despite the fact that he did manage to bring the newsroom under control).
WC: Mpofu represents an SABC that is beholden to the state and to specific Ã¢Â€Â˜publics’ rather than to Ã¢Â€Â˜the public’, an SABC that is terminally on the defensive against perceived enemies, and an SABC that is quick to assign the label. Writing in the !_LT_EMCity Press!_LT_/EM in October 2006, Mpofu characterised critics of the SABC as right-wing Ã¢Â€Â˜enemies of our people’s freedom’. If the SABC sees its future in the terms of its current framework, then probably Mpofu will do the job. But if the SABC imagines itself as a credible public service broadcaster of the future, Mpofu is probably not the best man to steer it into that future.
If you were in Mpofu’s position, what would you do to take the SABC forward?
AH: It is a damn difficult job and there are no simple solutions to the many problems any GCEO faces. But I would surround myself with smart people who would each know a part of the answer to your question.
JD: A new GCEO needs to:
Push for a review of the relationship between the executive and the board;
Ensure that the findings of the Sisulu Commission are implemented;
Initiate and act on the findings of a climate survey, to get to the bottom of the obviously low levels of morale;
Develop a proper business plan to motivate for public funding from the fiscus;
Evaluate the cost-effectiveness of SABC News’s international expansion, and rather invest in getting the basics right in news;
Resist the temptation to use SABC platforms to propagate his/her own views;
Desist from dabbling in editorial decision-making;
Spend more time in the office.
RT: Rally management into a single, motivated force, in feature which programming excellence and sound financial principles could co-exist (without making profit the single objective of the broadcaster); and come to terms with the board through some concessions, open negotiation and a clear agenda of vision of the broadcaster.
WC: I would address key issues around editorial and programming independence from politicians and from big business. I would need guarantees of non-interference from the board, and I would also guarantee autonomy to editorial staff. I would put in place measures to cultivate confidence in journalists, to stop the self-censorship that we see.
In fact, I would argue for the creation of a separate post of editor-in-chief who is in charge of matters editorial, somebody with unquestionable editorial integrity, while I concentrate on issues of management. The collapsing of the posts of editor-in-chief and GCEO does not make much sense, from the point of view of journalism.
!_LT_EMAt the time of going to print Mpofu had been suspended by the board for a third time for, amongst other things, alleged failure to perform his duties. He indicated that he would challenge the suspension. The SABC and the SABC board failed to respond to requests for comment for this article.!_LT_/EM
This article first appeared in !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM magazine (July 2008).