The SABC is at the heart of the national project to empower the nation, writes Faith Muthambi.
One of the most crucial institutions of our democratic governance is a credible public broadcaster. The SABC has gone through a number of challenges in recent times, placing its mandate at risk.
These challenges range from governance issues to funding model concerns. It is crucial that any strategic plan that will see the SABC fulfil its mandate fully take these cardinal challenges into account.
It is important to acknowledge up front that the multiple changes of boards and executives over time, resignations of board members and the cumbersome process of replacing board members mid-term all cause huge instability that this institution can ill afford.
It is for this reason that I intend starting a debate about how we can make the board and its related establishment processes a lot more efficient and a lot less of a political football in Parliament, where there is always an unnecessary tug-of-war when board members have to be appointed and replaced.
Such a process should not lead to a less independent board of directors, as suggested in some quarters.
All of us agree that we need men and women of integrity to serve in an institution of such importance.
The SABC is a news leader – it exists so that our people can have access to information. While this represents its core mandate, the debates about the SABC often are not about this crucial task it has, but about the politics of its governance.
It is for this reason that when producers are complaining about the SABC, or artists are complaining about their contracts, it hardly makes news.
But when there is a governance matter it makes it to the front pages, as we have seen this past week with the appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng as the chief operating officer of the corporation.
We must assure the public that such a decision was not made lightly.
As I indicated to Parliament, I await a detailed report from the board about how (it) will deal with matters raised by the public protector (with) regards to governance.
When that process has gone full circle, we will all be able to make up our own minds about whether the board has exercised its fiduciary responsibilities.
It is our intention to stabilise the team at the SABC, as any instability due to uncertainty is not good for governance.
To this end we have instructed the board to ensure that a chief executive is in place within a three-month period to take the organisation into a new chapter of empowerment for our people.
The SABC faces other challenges – ahead of the pending digital migration it will wake up to several new channels to add to its current four TV channels.
The question will arise about what type of content will fill these channels.
A process of local content production and redetermination, or re-envisioning, has been taking place behind the scenes as a collaborative initiative between the Department of Arts and Culture and the Department of Communications.
This process will open huge opportunities for young and up-and-coming producers to present to the SABC innovative programming ideas that can empower society when flighted.
An unstable SABC will not be able to lead that process effectively.
The growth of channels, including regional-focused channels, to improve reporting on the community-based and provincial-based concerns of citizens brings up the question of affordability and a funding model.
It is clear that with its current budget the SABC will fail to meet its mandate and execute its obligations effectively. Any model that promotes the over-reliance of advertising revenue, or one that merely resigns the SABC to rely solely on the public purse, is flawed.
There needs to be a greater interrogation of how the pubic mandate can be executed without being held hostage to commercial interests.
At the same time, there has to be a deeper interrogation of how the SABC can play in the robust commercial space, given its much sought-after inventory.
This delicate balance will require firm and visionary leadership both at board level and at executive level.
An unstable leadership will never achieve this.
A leadership has to cohere for creative solutions required to do this work to emerge as policy, but more importantly to stand the test of effective implementation. These matters have been on the agenda for a while.
As a member of the portfolio committee on communications over the past five years I cannot keep track of how many “turnaround” strategies we have been presented with by various leadership teams that never stayed around long enough to see them through.
I have decided to draw a line in the sand and inject a sense of urgency in stabilising the board and the executive – our interventions will not always be perfect, but they are based on our desire to empower the SABC to do what is necessary to meet its obligation to the population.
So while the Motsoeneng matter may be a subject of sensation, there is more that we need to be conversing about as a nation to make our broadcaster credible and fundamentally aligned to the achievements of the national development plan.
Our view of its role as a public and not state broadcaster is very clear.
However, there must be no doubt that the work of an institution of this nature cannot be considered innocent or detached from the overall goal of societal transformation.
We expect the SABC to focus on the poor when it plans its programming. We expect it to worry about the economic opportunities that its service can avail to our people.
These things can’t be irrelevant to its planning and priorities. Underlining it all is an understanding that the national project is at the heart of the very existence of a public broadcaster.
And so we call on members of the public to engage us as we seek to rebuild the SABC from a dysfunctional situation that has crippled it over the years, to a stable ship that can be entrusted with the empowerment of our people with the information they need to face their day-to-day challenges in seeking a better life.
* Muthambi is Minister of Communications.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.