Unless you are part of a close-knit circle within an inner circle that is itself inside some sort of enigma, you will never know just how much the ANC does or does not manipulate, control or direct the SABC.
My best guess is that the paranoia that exists among ANC cadres tends to create over-reactions to what they think their political bosses would want if they bothered to actually tell them outright.
But, there was a time when the SABC came as close as it ever has in its history to an organisation bent on doing the right thing.
When the late Zwelakhe Sisulu was appointed CEO of the SABC 16 years ago he initially had direct access to that inner circle of power within the ANC.
He was a trusted journalist and a man of immense integrity.
He told me at the time that the process of change at the SABC had been brutal. He did not enjoy it, but he made no apologies for what had to happen.
The corporation cut down its staff from roughly 6 000 employees to half that number. Traumatic in anybody’s language.
But get this; he also told government that if society wanted public service broadcasting it “would have to pay for it”. By implication, “if you want expensive educational programming and even more costly local content, then be prepared to dig into the state coffers because there is no business model that can cope with largesse of such magnitude…”
He was determined that election coverage, for example, would no longer be free and would no longer cripple the SABC’s resources. Tough talk. But business talk, not political talk. Must have scared the hell out of the cadre-deployment people back at the ANC.
Sisulu admitted then that he wasn’t a broadcasting expert. He argued that his job was to be the SABC’s communicator. To talk to all the stakeholders continuously, internal and external. Business talk, not political talk.
He created the post of chief operating officer but more important, particularly to the advertising industry, the SABC board also approved his proposal of the new position of chief executive sales and marketing.
And the man who got the job was Trevor Ormerod, deputy managing director of Times Media Limited at the time, and now, after a sojourn at Primedia is once again back at the Times Media Group
Mark Jakins, another marketing specialist, who like Ormerod, transformed the SABC airtime sales operation into a slick, results orientated business unit, followed him.
Sadly, Zwelakhe Sisulu, with his high idealism, editorial integrity and determination not to let politics run the SABC, didn’t last long in spite of his close connections to that inner circle within the enigma that is the decision-making, cadre-deploying arm of the ANC.
Neither did Ormerod nor Jakins – both clearly frustrated by the indecision and lack of appreciation for what needs to go into funding so gargantuan an organisation.
But, 16 years ago, the SABC came close to becoming great.
I doubt whether the ANC of today has the balls of the ANC 16 years ago when it put Sisulu in at the top. It was only for a while though, until they once again lost their nerve.
But this story does, I hope, serve as an indication to all the SABC stakeholders that success is possible.
I am not holding my breath.
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