The selection system of the SABC board must be placed in the hands of an independent commission, says Thato Mmereki.
Pretoria - The SABC, with its three television channels and 18 radio stations, is one of the most powerful broadcasting organisations in the world.
It should be the central pillar in the building of post-apartheid democracy, for a well-informed public is an organic necessity for the healthy functioning of a democratic system.
However, what we are seeing is the implosion of an immensely important national institution.
Nearly all its best journalists have either been fired or have quit in disgust.
Those who are left cower in unproductive corners to survive the hissing bosses who dominate the place. As a result the SABC has sacrificed its quality and credibility.
In the early years after its unbanning, the ANC committed itself to the task of restructuring the SABC, an organisation perverted into a shameful propaganda organ by the apartheid regime.
Under the direction of Pallo Jordan, then head of the ANC’s information and publicity department, and his deputy, Gill Marcus (now governor of the Reserve Bank), the ANC worked with media organisations to launch a campaign aimed at building a pool of journalists, broadcasters and administrators whose expertise could be drawn on to restructure the SABC in preparation for a new South Africa.
The emphasis throughout the campaign was placed on the SABC as a “public broadcaster,” as distinct from a state broadcaster, that would focus (wholly) on the broad public interest rather than the narrow political interests of political parties. The campaign attracted significant public interest. Public broadcasters in Britain, Australia, Canada and the US sent trainers and invited some of the most promising local talent to their countries for hands-on training.
A substantial amount of money was invested in the project. Looking back, all that was a waste. Hardly anyone who went through that intense training programme is at the SABC.
Admittedly, the highlight was the selection of the new “rainbow nation” SABC board – a democratic affair, even by the standards of leaders of the free world. In addition to focused discussions between the government and the ANC, the process involved constitutional negotiations taking place at the then-World Trade Centre.
Civil society organisations were invited to submit nominations, from which a balanced, multiracial selection panel of eight lawyers would shortlist candidates to be interviewed for positions on a 25-member board.
There were more than 500 nominees, from which 45 were shortlisted. The interviews took place in public, in a hall at the World Trade Centre, and they were televised.
One would have thought 45 interviews for appointments to the board of directors of a parastatal would not make for great television, but such was the level of public fascination born of years of fatigue at the abuse of the SABC that the interviews drew some of the highest audience ratings in the broadcaster’s history.
All seemed to be looking up until institutional decay started to set in. It began when the democratically elected first board’s term ran out and a new method of selection was instituted. This entailed the parliamentary select committee on communications interviewing nominees and selecting a list of names for submission to the president. The moment selection was delegated to politicians, it became politicised.
As the ruling party with a 62.16 percent majority, the ANC dominates all parliamentary select committees. So it is the selection system that is the root cause of the SABC’s tribulations.
The selection system must be placed in the hands of an independent commission. Such a commission could be modelled like the Judicial Service Commission that selects judges.
A broadcasting commission could be established to interview candidates and appoint directors of the SABC, the signal distributing company Sentech, and the Independent Communications Authority of SA.
Quality and credibility can only be restored to the SABC if the selection process reflects diligent effort to adhere to the principles of transparency, fairness and professionalism. Young South Africans are looking for exemplary leaders in whose footsteps they can walk.
* Thato Mmereki is founder of the African Youth Secretariat (www.africanyouthsecretariat.org).
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.