The SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition (SOS) has written an open letter to the head of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications to express its concern over the latest resignation of one the broadcaster’s board members.
“The working group notes with dismay that this is the seventh of the 12 non-executive SABC Board members to resign since 2010 when the Board took office,” said campaign organiser, Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi.
The coalition’s working group met at the end of January to discuss various issues relating to the embattled SABC, including the matter of the high turnover of board members.
Until now, the reasons behind all the resignations have not been clear. But the Coalition, using the Public Access to Information Act (Paia), now has copies of the letters of resignation, which, it says, make for depressing reading.
“What is startling is that where reasons are given for the resignations, they focus on two key factors: serious corporate governance problems and inappropriate ministerial interference,” Phamodi says.
Five of the six board members approached by The Presidency gave permission for their letters to be handed over to SOS. The sixth member has lodged an appeal.
“With the exception of Clifford Motsepe’s, the resignation letters collectively viewed, tell the same story of a board beleaguered with internal strife, poor governance, undue interference from the Communications Ministry which have frustrated the proper functioning of the Board and a lack of support or political will from oversight structures to champion the Board’s efforts in turning the SABC around,” SOS says on it website.
“This seems to continue given the very public tussle between Ben Ngubane and Cawe Mahlati. Given these problems we suspect that Patricia Makhesha has resigned for the same reasons.”
Barbara Masekela, a former South African ambassador to the US, resigned in 2010. In her letter, she refers to the “irregular” appointment of Phil Molefe as group executive responsible for news and current affairs. Masekela says the “whole process was forced to realise a pre-conceived result”.
Masekela also notes an “entrenched culture that has defied genuine transformation, a crisis management style characterized by non-compliance with corporate governance” and a “selective approach to the complexities of modern broadcasting which divorces the core service of content over production and programming from its financial imperatives”.
Masekela said corporate governance had been “relegated to the bottom of the pile”.
Another board member, David Niddrie, said sitting on the board was an “exercise in futility” as the members were unable to discharge their “statutory responsibility to ensure that the SABC meets the broadcasting needs of all South Africans, particularly the millions of South Africans who, for reasons of historical inequality, depend exclusively on its radio and television services”.
Niddrie draws attention to the fact that because most board members are “active” ANC members too, resignations can’t be characterized as arising from party-political differences or from what the media consistently and inaccurately describes as resistance by the board of attempts by the Minister to establish ANC control over the SABC”.
Niddrie says there has been a failure by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications to “exercise full oversight over both the SABC and the Minister and the department of communications”. This, he says, has undermined the SABC board’s ability to fulfill its responsibilities.
Felleng L Sekha also refers to the board’s inability to discharge its fiduciary duties and statutory obligations, adding that there “appears to be no reasonable prospect that the problems referred to will be remedied in the foreseeable future”.
Peter Harris, in his resignation letter, says he has “resisted setting out in detail the concerns I have in relation to certain areas of the functioning of the board, including its interaction with the Ministry and the intolerable interference from the ministry in the affairs of the board”.
The information that has come to light through the publication of the various ex-board members’ resignation letters demands the attention of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications.
“In light of this latest resignation, SOS formally and publicly calls upon the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications to hold a special hearing on the two deep seated problems identified by outgoing members of the SABC Board,” the SOS Coalition says in its open letter. “Among others, it is shocking that national cultural treasures such as Barbara Masekela and communications-industry leaders such as Felleng Sekha have found it impossible to stay and fulfil their duties on the SABC Board.”
Phamodi says it is the responsibility of parliament to investigate the areas of concern raised by the former board members.
Another issue of critical importance is the issue of executive members of the board. At the moment, of the three executive board members – CEO, COO and CFO – only the CEO position is confirmed.
“SOS believes that all legal battles linked to the other acting posts should be swiftly resolved and that these posts must then be widely advertised without further delay to ensure that the best candidates apply,” it says. “The SABC Board must then, in line with good labour law practices, conduct a fair appointment process leading to the appointment of experienced and respected individuals to these critical posts without any interference or input from the Minister of Communications, which appears to have given rise to many Board resignations in the past.’