Choose a board, choose a future

ANTON HARBER

Running the South African Broadcasting Commission (SABC) is like being Springbok rugby coach. Or manager of the Kaizer Chiefs. Or a local police commander. Everyone knows how to do it, and knows better than the person doing it, and has no problem telling them how they should be doing it. It is the breeding ground of that archetypal South African, the armchair expert.

This is also what makes these great South African institutions part of our national DNA. We talk about them obsessively, we get angry when they get it wrong and feel good when they get it right. The SABC provides one of the few gathering points for all South Africans. It is one place where we can, and should, all be talking to and about each other, laughing and crying together. That is the role that is seldom played by a purely commercial broadcaster, but can be by a national public broadcaster.

Which is why one mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that when we discuss the SABC, we are discussing television and radio, or mundane issues of broadcasting entertainment and education. What we are actually discussing is what kind of society we have, and what we want it to be.

It is easy to see the recent shenanigans around the SABC as a simple political battle: some people – a lot of people, actually – want to control it because it is so big and important, and others want to stop them, either to control it themselves, or to try and prevent anyone else from controlling it. But this is a surface view. What is happening is not just arm-wrestling for short-term control: it is a battle around how we become the kind of society we want to be.

Do we transform South Africa from above, by having the African National Congress (ANC) – as the popular representative of the vast majority of South Africans and the flag-bearer for post-apartheid transformation – take hold of and lead the major institutions of power and influence and drive social change through them, pushing aside those who would resist? Do we accept that this is the right of a democratically elected government, operating through parliament? Is it the most effective – maybe the only – way to drive a difficult agenda of social change? Or do we believe that development and transformation need a two-way conversation conducted through institutions like the SABC? In this scenario, the role of the SABC would be to foster the national dialogue, and ensure that we are not just learning what government is saying and doing, but also hearing what the full range of South Africans want and need, and empowering the voiceless to be seen and heard. The SABC is a tool of citizens, in this view, not of the party in power.

In the first phase of post-1990 transformation, the SABC was set up to be the latter. On paper, and in the statute books, this is how it was envisaged. The first new group CEO, Zwelakhe Sisulu, would famously not take many of the calls from the presidency. He was an ANC man, but he was also his own man.

In recent years, this changed, and the key offices were filled by people who saw themselves reporting first and foremost to ANC headquarters in Luthuli House. This was so much the case that power in the SABC Building lay with those who had the best relationships in either Luthuli House or the Union Buildings, and this was often the head of news rather than his editor-in-chief, the group CEO.

The shift to ANC control was signalled in how the board was appointed. The first new era board was selected in 1993 not by parliament, but by a panel of the great and good, headed by a fiercely independent senior judge, later to become the first black Chief Justice. It was quite a representative board, it had a good deal of expertise on it, and it got on with its difficult job.

The board appointed in the final days of President Thabo Mbeki in 2007 represented his faction’s last-ditch bid to crudely retain influence. It was appointed by a parliamentary committee that took orders directly from Luthuli House, and accepted meekly when some of their own choices, and those they had negotiated with other parties, were blithely over-ruled. Whereas the first board had been the subject of much debate, discussion, lobbying and arm-wrestling, by the time selections took place in 2007, the civil society organisations which had been so much a part of the process had dissipated, and appointments were left in the hands of a disempowered parliamentary committee. Mbeki’s selection was shoved through, despite opposition and controversy, and the board was plagued from the beginning by a lack of legitimacy, and it eventually collapsed.

Now we face the stark choice of which route to follow, made more urgent by the fact that the SABC is in financial crisis, has an acting board, an acting chair, an acting group CEO and an acting head of news. It appears, from what we hear and see, to be collapsing technically, with an increasing number of serious errors plaguing broadcasts.

Do we choose a board in the same way as the last, with the parliamentary committee going through a show of interviews of candidates, pretending to arm-wrestle with other parties, while taking calls from the presidency or Luthuli House, and voting accordingly, allowing one or two positions to go to other parties’ candidates? Or do we carefully scrutinise CV’s and listen to interviews, and choose on the basis of skill, experience, public service and national representivity, carefully balancing these crucial factors, listening to the revived civil society organisations lobbying furiously for change? Will the parliamentary committee really do its job this time, or will it follow party-political decree?

At a time when heads of parastatals – many of which are struggling with difficult challenges – appear to be chosen not by their boards but by the ANC national working committee, it is an important question to ask.

Surely the lesson of the last board, rendered ineffective by controversy and illegitimacy, tells us that who is appointed is only as important as how they are appointed?

Board appointments are only the first step. When the SABC chooses a head of news, they choose a news philosophy. Every candidate will undoubtedly talk about the important role of the public broadcaster in a developmental state, and the mantra of the day will probably be development communication. But that can mean very different things to different people. An old style of broadcasting would be top-down and one-way: its main aim being to communicate what government is saying and doing. A more modern version would be a two-way conversation, as much about making government listen as it is about making them heard.

One way to illustrate candidates’ attitudes is to ask this question: what kind of policy would a new head of news put in place to guide the choice of experts and analysts called upon to be quoted on air? This recalls the blacklisting controversy of the previous administration, in which it became clear that the news boss saw his role as indicating who was acceptable to Luthuli House. A different view might be to allow journalists and editors doing the work to decide who is newsworthy and interesting, and who has something to say which adds to and explains a story, regardless of how it is seen by the political authorities. In other words, it would be driven by a desire to empower journalists to make decisions on what serves the listener best and to go on to make the most interesting and inclusive stories and reports. Of course, they also have to take account of representivity and diversity, but it would rule out quoting anyone on this basis if they were dull, boring or predictable.

In other words, we want news driven by news values, a sense of what citizens need to and should know regardless of who is made uncomfortable by the coverage.

At such a crucial moment, we have to remind ourselves of what the SABC can be, why we are all armchair experts. We can too easily get lost in the minutiae of board and other appointments, of obtuse policy documents and debates over funding.

The SABC’s difficulty is that it has to juggle a few different functions. It should show us ourselves, putting the faces and voices of South Africans on the air. Few things give people a sense of themselves and their place in this society as much as seeing themselves, their concerns and their issues on national television. The SABC also has to provide effective communication between government and its people, in particular giving voice to those voices which are least heard. It should be defining and shaping the national debate. And it has to shine light in dark places, asking tough questions, calling those in power to account, and keeping everyone on their toes. This would be in line with President Zuma’s fight against corruption and incompetence, and for accountability. And the SABC has to do all this in an entertaining way, in 11 languages and on only three channels – and within a limited budget.

That’s all.

Pass the biltong.

Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. You can discuss this column with him on his blog at www.theharbinger.co.za.

© Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, 2009.

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