The resignations of the chairman of the SABC’s board and his deputy has effectively left the public broadcaster without top leadership, a worrying situation in light of the challenges it faces.
The resignations of chairman Dr Ben Ngubane and Thami ka Plaatjie came after several weeks of upheaval at board level. Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj confirmed that President Jacob Zuma had received their letters of resignation, and was “considering” them. He also said communications minister Dina Pule was trying to persuade the pair to reconsider. “The matter is receiving attention from the communications department,” Maharaj said.
The problem is the organisation simply can’t function without a chair or deputy chair, says the SOS Coalition’s acting co-ordinator, Kate Skinner. “The board quorum is nine people with either the chair or deputy chair. The President appoints both. The President needs to immediately appoint an acting chair and deputy hair, as a stopgap measure. We obviously very urgently need to have the emergency parliamentary hearing to look at some of the deeper problems,” Skinner told The Media Online.
The sad truth is that the board has been heading for a crisis since a spate of resignations rocked the stability of the group meant to guide the organisation. Nine board members have resigned since 2010, surely an indication of a deeply divided state of affairs. Their resignation letters, accessed by the civil society activist organisation, the SOS ‘save our public broadcaster’ Coalition’ through a an application via the Public Access to Information Act (Paia), to a man recite a lack of governance, political interference and a lack of support in trying to turn around the fortunes of the SABC.
One former board member, David 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 fulfil its responsibilities.
Now, the board is even more deprived that before. The Ngubane and Ka Plaatjie resignations come in the wake of a tense few weeks at the SABC that saw controversial acting COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng fired by the board, reinstated by Ngubane, then fired again by other members of the board using Lumke Mtimde as their spokesman. All this played out in the public arena, with the public using social media to vent their frustrations.
“What’s the latest on the real life Muvhango that is SABC?” asked Nombonisa Gasa, echoing the sentiments of thousands of others.
“My TV licence is up for renewal. But after reading City Press I don’t want to fund the SABC soapie anymore,” Raymond Joseph says.
“Last week Pule asked parliament to investigate the fitness of the SABC board to complete its term. Today she’s asking Ngubane to stay on,” says Khadija Patel.
Patel was responding to the news that communications minister Dina Patel, who last week questioned the fitness of the SABC’s board, reportedly asked parliament to “urgently” review its fitness for duty.
Parliament certainly needs to do something, Skinner says. “Ideally the Minister should not be getting involved. Parliament should be playing the leading role. The more the Minister intervenes the more the SABC is pushed in a state broadcaster direction,” she says.
Conspicuous by her absence in the on-going drama at the SABC is GCEO Lulama Mokhobo. “The GCEO should throw her weight behind the President making the immediate chair and deputy chair appointments. Also, she should throw her weight behind Parliament holding the emergency meeting. In the hearing she should be honest about the problems at board level,” Skinner says.
The SOS Coalition is convinced an emergency meeting to lay out the challenges facing the SABC, and start looking at solutions is key.
“The Portfolio Committee should be holding an emergency board meeting and should be dealing with a number of important issues – the crisis at board level including an honest assessment of the operations of the board and the role of individual board members; the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) Report; ministerial interference issues and the issue of gaps in the Broadcasting Act, 1999. Parliament must get to the bottom of these problems and seek a way forward. I don’t think it is possible to predict the immediate outcome,” Skinner says.
DA communications spokeswoman, Marian Shinn, has urged President Zuma to accept the resignations of Ngubane and Ka Plaatjie. “Under Dr Ngubane’s leadership a number of appropriately experienced people, committed to restoring the SABC to a credible, financially stable public broadcaster serving all South Africans, resigned from the board in frustration because of Dr Ngubane’s dictatorial style and his inability or unwillingness to prevent political interference in the stations’ editorial and content,” she says.
“His unwavering support for Mr Hlaudi Motsoeneng as acting Chief Operating Officer (COO) – who was both unqualified and unsuitable for the job – further divided the operations of the corporation, and eroded its reputation.”
She echoes the call for a politically neutral chairperson with solid credentials in corporate governance to take the SABC forward. “We will need individuals who will put the interests and the stability of the public broadcaster first,” she said, adding that it was important that all future appointments to the SABC board were depoliticised.
But with elections 2014 just a year away, it’s highly unlikely the ANC and its president will agree to a “politically neutral” chair. As seen in the tense run up to the party’s elective conference in Mangaung in December, the SABC in Motsoeneng’s hands played a powerful role in preventing open discussion. On Motsoeneng’s orders, a Metro FM talkshow was prevented from interviewing journalists on the subject.
Union the Media Workers Association of South Africa, Mwasa, said it was saddened by the news of the top level resignations. “We do not celebrate failure even though we are completely vindicated. This marks the 9th resignation since this board took office in 2010,” said general secretary, Tuwani Gumani.
“Consistently dubbed “dysfunctional” the Ngubane board was tasked with turning-around the SABC and instead has successfully drifted the organisation further into troubled waters. Individual, factional and clique interests finally consumed the board!” he said.
Gumani appealed to SABC staff to join the fight. He said Mwasa believes it is “incumbent upon the workers to unite and rescue the SABC from yet another management crisis. We should not further allow decisions to be made without consideration of the voice and input of the workers or staff. SABC staff must be taken seriously.
“We believe as MWASA that the SABC can be rescued only and only if the professionals across the ranks and levels of the corporation stand united and speak intelligently with one voice.
“The policy of divide-and-rule only serves the interests of those who have most to gain from weak worker-structures. We have watched helplessly, the raiding, the corruption, the looting, the in-fighting and the dragging of the name of the SABC in stinking muck! “ he said.
It’s not just upcoming elections that will challenge the SABC, but the vitally important rollout of Digital Terrestrial Television. Skinner says the lack of a good board and chairman will probably impact on the public broadcaster’s plans for DTT.
“If the SABC has any hope of getting public money for its new DTT channels it will need to put forward detailed plans and budgets to Parliament and National Treasury. It needs a strong management and board in place to ensure that this important work gets done,” she says.
In an editorial in Business Day, editor in chief Peter Bruce asks why government finds it so hard to run the SABC. “The short answer is that the job is impossible. The latest spat is a good example. If the news reports are to be believed, the resignations, which surely must have been a last resort, resulted from a board simply unable to agree. In other words, the board has been tearing itself apart by pulling in different directions until something had to give.”
He believes the root of the problem is that the historical legacy of the SABC is as a tool of the ruling party, and says “it is extraordinary how little that has changed from apartheid to the democratic era. Hence, board appointments have tended to be political rather than professional, and the criteria for success are measured by the same standard.”
In the meantime, the country waits for President Jacob Zuma to make a decision, one way or another, and for the GCEO to lead the organisation through the crisis