Johannesburg - New broom Communications Minister Yunus Carrim may have no style, but he could be cool, according to one opposition MP.
He had members of Parliament’s communications oversight committee in stitches at times during a presentation this week on his plans for the remaining months of his short term in the position, and by the end of it they were eating out of his hand.
“Your passion and commitment, minister, really shine through and give us hope that this department will finally have the bold leadership that will take it forward,” remarked the IFP’s Liezl van der Merwe, adding: “I would venture to say maybe you’d be a cool minister. I don’t know if that’s parliamentary, but forgive me.”
With an election looming and interviews for a new board for the struggling SABC under way, Carrim has leapt into the fraught portfolio with an energy and blunt realism that has lifted the gloom that descended under his disgraced predecessor, Dina Pule. The contrast in their approach could not have been plainer on the day Pule offered a grudging apology after being found guilty of concealing from Parliament her relationship with a man who profited from it.
Pule said “if”, in the course of trying her “best”, she had “made a mistake”, she was “sorry”.
Earlier, Carrim made it plain that he expected MPs to help him whip his department into shape.
“If the executive is weak, you must ask yourself whether you are fulfilling your role effectively. I’m pleading with you to exercise stringent and effective oversight over us, which is what the population out there has elected you to do,” he said.
His words set the tone for the SABC board interviews, which began immediately afterwards.
There had been fears, after the acrimony and charges of political interference that collapsed the previous board, that no credible candidates would step forward this time.
Lumko Mtimde, a member of the board that resigned en masse earlier this year, revealed he had had to be persuaded to accept his nomination.
“What has changed?” he asked rhetorically.
“I think now the shareholder (the government) is represented by a new minister and there is a commitment… that has also been shown by the interest in accepting nominations to serve in the SABC by so many South Africans… to ensuring the SABC becomes what it should be.”
Sikhumbuzo Kholwane, the chairman of the committee, which is interviewing the candidates, said it had learnt from its mistakes in appointing the previous board.
“I think the parties in this committee have matured over time. Of course, we won’t rule out that going into elections can play into interests or people raising political issues, but after all, whatever disagreement we might have in terms of finalising the 12 (board members), I think broadly should be around the candidates,” he said.
“It will be more like that, than the politics, because I think we have learnt what is good for the country is a good SABC, based on capacity and skills.”
While it would be a “new start”, he said he had asked Carrim to make a priority of the drawing up of a shareholder compact between the minister and the board to eliminate grey areas that could lead to perceptions of political interference.
The compact should set out “what exactly they’re expecting people to deliver” so that the minister could intervene only if necessary.
“Then you can measure the relationship. But if it’s too ad hoc it’s a problem because you might be emotional sometimes, there should be less of that and more of a structured (approach).”
The role of the chief executive should also be clarified so that he or she did not get involved in vetting content.
He said in drawing up a shortlist the committee had gone for a mixture of skills, including chartered accountants and lawyers as well as business people and younger candidates to ensure the board was in tune with the times.
Candidates interviewed this week ranged from Mtimde, also the chief executive of the Media Development and Diversity Agency, and Kate Skinner of the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, an often vocal critic of the SABC’s performance, to Thabo Mbeki biographer and academic William Gumede.
But Carrim, who revealed that his daughter had accused him of having no style, sounded a note of caution amid the optimism that swept the committee.
“If you think we’re going to turn the SABC around between now and May (when a new government is expected to be sworn in), man, you must be from (magic realist writers) Gabriel García Márquez or Salman Rushdie or one of these surrealistic visions – it’s not going to happen,” he warned.
“But what you can be assured of, you bring me here, if you can, shortly before the elections and you ask, ‘Yunus, what have you done on your watch, to make the SABC slightly more stable?’ and you take me on. On that I can assure you, it’s going to happen. It’s going to become more stable.”
Then, with the broadcaster’s mountain of woes in mind, he added: “But not stable enough.”
* May 2008: Group chief executive officer Dali Mpofu suspends head of news Snuki Zikalala, only to be suspended himself by the SABC board. It sets off a legal wrangle that ends in 2009 with Mpofu accepting an R11 million payout. Zikalala’s contract expires in the same year and is not renewed.
* July 2009: Parliament resolves to dissolve the board after a string of resignations, and that the auditor-general should investigate financial mismanagement at the broadcaster.
* July 2009: An interim board is appointed.
* September 2009: The auditor-general releases a damning report, which found widespread mismanagement, and fruitless and wasteful spending.
* November 2009: Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda announces the approval of a government loan guarantee of R1.4 billion for the SABC. The loan guarantee comes with conditions including the drawing up of a turnaround strategy.
* December 2009: Audited financial statements show the SABC has a loss of R910m for the 2008/09 financial year.
* December 2009: President Jacob Zuma appoints a new SABC board, chaired by former arts and culture minister Ben Ngubane. The broadcaster also announces the appointment of former chief operations officer Solly Mokoetle as its new chief executive.
* May 2010: Phil Molefe is appointed head of news after what the SABC calls “a lengthy process of selection and shortlisting”, but the board declares his appointment null and void, saying it wasn’t done properly.
* June 2010: Board members send a memorandum to Nyanda accusing Ngubane of misconduct in his unilateral appointment of Molefe.
* Mokoetle is suspended after failing to deliver a promised turnaround strategy by the deadline of March.
* October 2010: Four members of the board resign.
* October 2010: Nyanda is fired and replaced by Roy Padayachie.
* October 2010: The Special Investigating Unit begins an investigation into millions of rand lost through fraud and corruption.
* November 2010: Zuma loyalist Motsoeneng is appointed acting chief operating officer.
* January 2011: Mokoetle resigns.
* June 2011: Another board member, Peter Harris, resigns, as the SABC announces Molefe has been appointed acting chief executive. Outgoing acting chief executive Robin Nicholson sues for breach of contract.
* October 2011: Dina Pule replaces Padayachie as Zuma again reshuffles his cabinet.
* October 2011: The broadcaster announces it is to investigate the leasing of luxury vehicles for its news team to the tune of R20m.
* January 2012: Lulama Mokhobo appointed as group chief executive.
* February 2012: Gugu Duda appointed SABC chief financial officer.
* April 2012: Mokhobo places Molefe, now head of news, on special leave. The two had reportedly clashed over his refusal to supply her with a daily news diary and her belief that axed ANC Youth League president and thorn in Zuma’s flesh, Julius Malema, is being given too much coverage. Molefe later loses a court bid to be reinstated.
* September 2012: Duda is suspended after it emerges she signed off on a R3m sponsorship for an ICT Indaba hosted by the Communications Department without the permission of the board. Pule’s boyfriend, it later emerges, was paid R6m for working on the Indaba.
* January 2013: Board member Patricia Makhesha resigns.
* March 2013: The board announces it has relieved Motsoeneng of his duties, only for the chairman, Ngubane, to contradict the statement, saying Motsoeneng has been reinstated. Board spokesman Lumko Mtimde insists, however, that the decision stands. Within days, Ngubane and his deputy, Thami ka Plaatjie, resign, followed by the remaining members, barring Claire O’Neil, who is abroad.
* March 2013: Parliament votes to dissolve the board, but not before one of its members, Suzanne Vos, has laid bare the extent of interference by the minister and attempts by Motsoeneng to pressure board members into supporting his permanent appointment.
* April 2013: Zuma endorses the appointment of a new interim board.
* July 2013: Zuma fires Pule and Yunus Carrim takes the reins as the new minister of communications.
TOP FIVE CHALLENGES FOR A NEW SABC BOARD
1. Senior management turmoil: political appointments to executive positions have resulted in a high casualty rate as incumbents fall out of favour with changes of the guard in the ANC. This also leads to infighting in the ruling party being reflected in battles at the public broadcaster. The chief financial officer, Gugu Duda, is on suspension and the chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, holds an acting position.
2. Digital migration: the vastly increased spectrum offered by the move from an antiquated analogue to a digital signal, set to happen by an international deadline of 2015, should translate into a flowering of local content on a plethora of new channels. This is a great opportunity for the SABC, but it will also bring increased competition. The public broadcaster, meanwhile, has radically cut spending on original content as it seeks to balance its books.
3. Shrinking viewership: while the SABC still rules the airwaves, it has been losing its share of television viewers to pay channel rivals, shedding advertising revenue along the way. It suffers from anaemic programming and public disillusionment over political interference.
4. Funding crisis: though the SABC has almost repaid the R1.47 billion loan it got on the back of a government guarantee, it achieved it partly by recycling old content and slashing spending on new material. If it is to compete in the digital arena, it will have to cough up for improved programming. But it lacks the funds.
5. Corruption: the Special Investigating Unit’s report on its probe into fraud and corruption running into millions has been handed to President Jacob Zuma and there have been some prosecutions. However, until the broadcaster can convince the Treasury that it has its financial house in order it can forget about getting more money.
Independent on Saturday