Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Easy to sacrifice Snuki, harder to find the perfect replacement

With the rise of the Zuma era, the SABC board has decided to ditch Snuki Zikalala as head of news. At the same time, the board itself faces the strong likelihood of being ditched. Parliament has been itching to oust it ever since Thabo Mbeki was toppled from the ANC.

The board members were controversially appointed by Mbeki despite his loss of power within the party, something that strongly angered the triumphant Zuma-ites.

Supercharging their unhappiness was the particular genesis of the board even before the appointments came through. The ruling party’s MPs had themselves agreed to change their initial list of names that went forward for Mbeki’s signature. That was back in the day when his supporters still ran party headquarters. Despite the fact that the MPs, not Luthuli House, had interviewed the candidates, they complied with preferences proclaimed from afar.

Unfortunately, the MPs’ resentment may well been less about parliamentary integrity being bypassed, than at the pro-Mbeki colours of the people who initiated this. At any rate, it was this backdrop of intervention that sent their anger over boiling point when the then-president still ignored the subsequent change in political forces and proceeded to appoint the board.

Since then, most members of this board have clung doggedly onto office despite widespread criticism. As a whole, the board has also stuck by Zikalala despite strong criticism of him from, amongst others, the pro-Zuma people.

When the news chief’s contract expired last month, it might have been expected that this would be renewed, thereby securing his employment as a legacy inheritance for a future board.

Alternatively, there was the option of keeping Zikalala on for a few months until the future of the board itself was resolved, and in this way allowing a likely new board the space to choose his successor.

Instead, by deciding to let the man go, the question arises as to whether the incumbent board is now making a gesture to the Zuma-led Parliament in the hope of saving its own skin. An alternative question is whether they want to install a candidate whom a successor board might find more difficult to dislodge than the controversial Zikalala.

Less cynically, it may be that the board has straight-forwardly deemed that to change negative perceptions about SABC news, the service needs a new face at the helm. Ironically, this motivation would be at a time when Zikalala has successfully delivered election coverage judged as fair and non-partisan by the independent Media Monitoring Africa. Even so, the board may have calculated that the SABC not only has to be impartial — it must also be seen to be as such.

But whatever the board’s thinking, its challenge is that the politicisation of the SABC will make it very difficult to achieve the goal of generalised credibility, whoever is chosen to replace Zikalala.

Certainly, the country’s politicians are on the same page that the broadcaster serves every other party — but their own. It’s unlikely they’ll ever all be happy. So the first requirement of a new incumbent will be to have a super-thick skin.

Still, not many people can take on the logistics of running such a vast and dispersed editorial team, which has to create an entirely new (and controversial) commodity several times a day. (Not forgetting about 13 languages and more than 30 platforms, including websites and telephone audio services).

There’s also a need for a newcomer not just to maintain the SABC’s profile and competitive appeal nationally, but also safeguard and enhance the international reputation of the SABC as a public broadcaster where its sister media elsewhere in Africa are crude government megaphones.

To do the job successfully will take at least the following core competencies:

1. Stature — the successful candidate needs to command widespread respect to hold to an independent stance and avoid bullying by politicians. The person also needs to know, backwards, the SABC legal mandate and editorial policies in order to derive clear direction — and protection — from these documents.

2. Strategic acumen — the incoming head of news has to be sensitive to multi-lingualism and to multi-media. The SABC currently lags behind institutions like the BBC in exploiting web and cellphone platforms that are essential in an age of convergence and content proliferation.

3. Journalistic appreciation — there needs to be a fine understanding of the distinctiveness of public service journalism. That means journalism that is in the public interest, and not simply content that is merely interesting to the public. However it also means avoiding mind-numbing worthiness. What’s also critical is to go beyond providing a soapbox to which the range of voices have access. The SABC also has to build up its capacity to become a “factor” in public discourse. That means journalists adding real value to stories — for instance, through independent scrutiny and strong cross-questioning, and through enriching stories with well-researched information. Deep expertise in the newsroom needs nurturing — such as developing specialist teams around science, culture, tech, policy, environment, health and economics. Training systems and programmes have to be prioritised, and continuously evaluated and updated.

4. People-management skills are required in a 360-degree ambit. Relations with the SABC CEO have to be managed — that portfolio is still defined as “editor in chief”. Relations with the board constitute a further need to manage “upwards”. Leading the various platform editors and specialist editors requires excellent skills in managing “downwards”. Managing “laterally” is needed in relation to the SABC Content Hub (which handles non-news programming), and as regards advertising and marketing. Another vital realm that needs managing is the wider public. The new head of news should operate an ombuds service that handles complaints and also take advice from an external advisory editorial panel.

5. Business skills — the ability to plan and administer budgets is vital, especially given the SABC’s financial crisis. More and better output needs to be generated from the SABC’s extensive news resources.

A tall order, admittedly. But it’s hard to see how any person can make a go of the post if he or she is lacking in any of these five areas.

On the other hand, if the ideal candidate can’t be found, the next best would be a person whose strengths include knowing own weaknesses — and being able to complement the gaps with appropriate deputies.

Failing this, it wouldn’t be far-fetched that Snuki gets brought back — with a mission to address criticisms in a way that does change perceptions.