The SABC building in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Picture: BUSINESS DAY
The SABC building in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

IT HAS been referred to by some as a "poisoned chalice".

The board of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has repeatedly made headlines for all the wrong reasons and the approval of the new board by Parliament last week was again embroiled in controversy.

The all-too-familiar narrative is that the board members were once again approved by Luthuli House. Analysts say that this means that the African National Congress (ANC) will continue to exert undue influence on the public broadcaster, especially with the elections a few months away.

Reports at the weekend emerged that MPs were merely given a list by the ANC to rubber stamp, making the selection process which Parliament’s communications portfolio committee embarked on in August a "farce".

Astoundingly, according to reports, interns at Luthuli House were used to nominate ANC-affiliated members to the SABC board.

This has all meant that the credibility of the new board has been again called into question even before the new members take up their seats. According to the Democratic Alliance (DA), there is a "very good chance" that the new SABC board will fail for the most part because the board "will bow down to Luthuli House before bowing down to good governance".

The DA’s communications spokeswoman and MP Marian Shinn says the ANC rammed through their candidates and did not want to compromise.

Many observers have raised issue with the extent of Parliament’s involvement in appointing board members of the public broadcaster.

They argue that Parliament’s dominance when it comes to appointing the board means that it will always be open to political manipulation. A suggestion has been made to reduce Parliament’s involvement in choosing the board members, allowing some of the directors to be nominated by social constituencies such as churches and unions, and perhaps even SABC employees.

Prof Jane Duncan, Highway Africa chair of media and information society at Rhodes University says that the time may well have come to call for a different selection process, A panel with balanced representation from Parliament, civil society, the media, and academia could undertake the selection.

"Of course, the problem arises of who selects that panel, but this problem is not insurmountable. Such a process was followed in relation to the first democratically selected board in 1993, but that process was much more intricate and involved and was, to an extent, a product of its time, as a democratically elected Parliament was not in place then. But unless Parliament is going to act in the broader public interest, rather than the interests of the majority party and in fact even in the interests of the ruling faction of the majority party, then the time has come for this process to be revisited," Prof Duncan says.

She says that this is the umpteenth board where there has been unhappiness with the selection process, "and unfortunately it has to be concluded that the existing mechanism cannot avoid inappropriate politicisation of the board selection process".

"The ANC is gradually losing electoral support; this is evident from a long-range analysis of the various election results; as a result, the temptation to manipulate the board selection process to ensure that the SABC shores up the ANC’s support is likely to grow, which is also likely to lead to even more instability at the broadcaster".

The members of the new board, approved by the National Assembly by 203 votes to 78 last week include current interim board chairwoman Ellen Tshabalala, who is said to be the presidential adviser on broad-based black economic empowerment. Another controversial name on the board is Nomvuyo Mhlakaza, wife of Young Communist League national secretary and ANC MP Buti Manamela.

ANC national disciplinary committee legal adviser Krish Naidoo is also on the board as is national lottery operator Gidani’s CEO, Bongani Khumalo.

The other names on the final list that has been forwarded to President Jacob Zuma for appointment are Noluthando Gosa (a member of the previous board before she stepped down), former Public Service Commission member Vusumuzi Mavuso, chartered accountant Ronnie Lubisi, Rachel Kalidaas, Thembinkosi Bonakele, Mbulaheni Maguvhe, Aaron Tshidzumba and Hope Zinde, who is a former SABC presenter.

SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition co-ordinator Sekoetlane Phamodi says it is concerning that many of the proposed board members are linked to the ANC.

"It is concerning … particularly in relation to the broadcaster’s independence which has been under question for some time, now. What came as a particular concern to us was reports of the ANC committee members using their dominance to push a list without attempting to build consensus between all members. Our view has consistently been that in selecting the board, the committee should seek to build full consensus (and) show full confidence in and support for the board they put before the Assembly and the President for appointment," Mr Phamodi says.

"Nevertheless, this is the list we have right now. Truth be told, on paper and measured against their track record in institutions in which they have served, many of the members have the requisite skills and experience. It is our hope that these will be employed to help transform the SABC in the public benefit above all else".

Mr Phamodi says that the board alone should not be looked at as the panacea to the SABC’s problems.

"We have seen excellent boards come and go time and time again. The SABC’s problems are historical and structural. Something very drastic needs to change in the environment in which this board has to operate. Parliament and the Communications Ministry must play their oversight roles more effectively without intruding on the functions of the board".

The public broadcaster has for several years been characterised by a myriad of failures and there is no question that the new board faces a daunting task of stabilising the SABC.

The SABC has had four boards since 2008, which were all characterised by controversy and alleged corruption involving millions of rand. The constant comings and goings at the board has in many instances rendered the broadcaster dysfunctional and rudderless. The broadcaster received a disclaimer-the worst possible audit outcome from the auditor-general earlier this month after he found that among other things that it failed to properly account for more than R1,5bn that was spent on consultancy and other professional service fees. The new board also comes in during a crucial period in South Africa’s broadcasting history. It will have to drive the digital migration process which has been hampered by numerous delays. Only time will tell whether the new board will be able to buck the trend and succeed to stabilise the broadcaster.