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A scenario for the SABC

The SABC’s board of directors is on its way out, but later rather than sooner.

And what happens then? Those wanting them out don’t seem to have given enough thought to this.

This conclusion emerges from current discussions in Parliament about a legal amendment that would force President Thabo Mbeki to fire the board. To date, he has turned a deaf ear to the motion of no confidence in the board by MPs in the portfolio committee on communications.

The MPs, however, remain determined to oust what they see as an Mbeki-dominated SABC board, even though, ironically, they recommended the names to the president last year. Of course that was back in the pre-Polokwane era when they fell in line with the names that party headquarters deemed suitable for the president to appoint.

Yet, in their more recent efforts to dislodge the incumbent board, the MPs risk missing a range of issues.

Their draft law amends the Broadcasting Act to give Parliament power to order the president to dismiss the board if an investigation by MPs finds that members are not performing.

No problem there — but, surprisingly, given the communications committee’s antipathy to Mbeki, the second part of the Bill goes on to give the president a free hand after dismissal to appoint an interim board of four people.

Various people, including me, made submissions to Parliament on Tuesday saying that this scenario would create yet further problems, and that a much more wide-ranging reform was needed. Many of us called for a major policy and legislative review that would lead to including civil society constituencies in appointing (and dismissing, if need be) board members.

However, the tone of the MPs speaking at the hearings signalled their priority of getting rid of the entire board in the shortest possible time, rather than any long-haul legislative review.

Sensitive to this agenda, a coalition called Save our SABC advised that there should be some changes within the short-term horizon of the amendment Bill.

The coalition comprises mainly media-freedom NGOs, but includes Cosatu and the Broadcast Electronic Media and Allied Workers’ Union. It cautioned Parliament at least to set limits to the proposed interim board to be appointed by president.

For them, the Bill should define a caretaker board of five non-executive members, consisting of a person with commercial broadcast experience, a lawyer, an academic, a civil society member and a labour representative. There should be a three-month limit on the term of this body, and it should never function over an election period, they argued.

These might be points that the committee takes on board. But assuming that it wants to get a full new board ahead of elections next year, it will all be a very tight timetable:

Getting the president to sign the amendment into law, conduct an inquiry into the existing board, and call for their dismissal is one hurdle. If board members take their dismissal to court, that could be another delay.

To then set up a caretaker body and oversee the process of nominations, interviews and recommendations for a new board to the same president are steps that would take us far into next year.

For these reasons, the MPs might as well initiate a more fundamental review process (including public consultation) that could lead to a comprehensive SABC Act.

There is another reason why the MPs need to go further than their fixation with the present board. This depends on how seriously they take a submission by Jane Duncan of the Freedom of Expression Institute.

She pointed out a conflict between the Broadcasting Act, which gives the SABC independence, and the company articles of association, which are set by the minister of communication.

According to Duncan, these articles effectively give the minister, representing the state as sole shareholder, the power to choose the group chief executive — who in turn serves as editor-in-chief of the broadcaster.

The import of her point is that while MPs may oust a pro-Mbeki board, a pro-Mbeki minister could still influence the SABC through the back door.

The consequence: the public broadcaster would still be caught between old and new hegemonies in the ANC.

The logic of all this is that there is no quick fix, even from the pro-Zuma people’s point of view.

A far better option would be for the MPs to relinquish the power play and instead listen more closely to less politically driven stakeholders. In the meantime, the current board is unlikely to go anywhere soon, and the impasse around the SABC’s governance will endure for longer.