Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Tightening the leash on the SABC and Icasa

No one has come out shining in the mud-slinging around the SABC, but the biggest loser is the autonomy of communications.

This has been paralleled by a similar song-and-dance in parliament, in regard to the broadcasting regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).

The consequence is that South Africa currently sits with both the SABC and Icasa forfeiting autonomy in favour of external — and perhaps exclusively political — intervention.

Over a decade ago, Icasa’s forerunner fell from public favour after some of its councillors were accused of abusing credit cards. That lapse enabled the then-minister Jay Naidoo to make a move.

Through him, government didn’t just secure more fiscal responsibility at what was then called the Independent Broadcasting Authority; it was able to exploit the issue to assert strong policy dominance over the institution.

In time, Naidoo’s successor, the late Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri followed this up with introducing performance management controls on the Icasa councillors.

This year, the regulator has — in essence — invited even greater intervention in its affairs. Its recent actions were summed up by the institution’s chairperson speaking to parliament, as being a case of the council having “fallen off its horse”.

This admission came in the context of the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications enquiring why the regulator had joined forces with Cosatu in a last-minute bid to block the sale of Telkom’s Vodacom shares to Vodafone.

Chair of the committee, Ismail Vadi, asked what kind of independence Icasa practised in regard to contradicting the fact that then-president Kgalema Motlanthe had signed off the Vodacom deal.

A week earlier, committee member Johnny de Lange had lumped Icasa together with all state-owned enterprises (like Sentech) reporting to the Department of Communications (DoC). He argued then that the government had gone too far in allowing these bodies to do their own thing.

In his view, policy should be made by government and parliament, and not by the various institutions reporting to the DoC.

Outside De Lange’s radar, however, is any conception of civil society participating as a third factor in policy making. There was no sense of the importance of these bodies — and especially Icasa — enjoying relative autonomy from any single centre of power (especially that of a ruling party).

Also absent from De Lange’s view was whether, long before the issue ever went to the president, Icasa ought to have held public hearings on the Vodacom sale.

DoC officials responded to the MPs’ criticism by explaining that Icasa is constitutionally independent. But the parliamentarians’ scepticism about this dispensation expanded in direct proportion to the feeble pleading by the regulator’s councillors.

Granted, there is not much that could be said in defence of Icasa making its decision so late in the day. But the regulator’s people did not even attempt to argue for the general principle of consultation subject to decent timing.

SABC’s performance in parliament was even worse.

Board members didn’t seem to know if their resignations were effective or not. Some seemed to think they could — and should — continue governance over a three-month notice period. Others urged the speedy dissolution of the board.

Several members had sent their resignation letters to the DoC, even although the presidency had been their appointing officer. It also emerged that even simple communications between parliament and SABC had failed to get through to board members.

Overall, SABC’s executive management blamed the board for the broadcaster’s woes. The board in turn attacked them, and didn’t spare parliament either — saying that MPs had refused to listen when the board had previously sought to raise the SABC’s financial problems.

MPs also asked the DoC why, as representative of the state as shareholder in SABC, it had not intervened at the corporation. In turn, DoC fingered both the SABC executive and non-executive management for failing to report adequately.

It was an engrossing — but also highly unedifying — spectacle as the blame-game bounced around the parliamentary hearings, the stakes rising on each occasion, and SABC’s crisis continuing to fester.

Now there will be a temporary resolution with the SABC board consigned to history. Forensic investigations are also supposed to start digging into alleged corruption and mismanagement within the corporation.

The new interim mini-board due to take office will have one a helluva job picking up the pieces in its brief six months of existence. Meanwhile, the process of parliament selecting a new fully-fledged board needs to be completed by year end.

At the same time, everyone knows that much more needs to change besides the board — and not least, the SABC’s business model and its corporate governance systems.

Government has indicated an intention to review the broadcaster’s legislation, and the civil society alliance “Save our SABC” has appropriately called for a proper Green Paper consultative process.

If these bigger processes do actually unfold, they would take place alongside emergency measures to stabilise SABC — although any short-term measures will also inevitably have medium-term consequences.

What this all portends is continuing bruising of the public broadcaster for months to come. It’s a real achievement that SABC staffers have been able to keep the show on the road during this prolonged battering.

But the bigger picture that emerges is that the messes at Icasa and SABC are a challenge to anyone who believes in trying to separate political power and public communications.

In short, the case for the autonomy of the two institutions has been badly weakened.

Political intervention played a part in this, at least in regard to SABC. In this case, the intervention also made a mockery of the institutional integrity of parliament when MPs originally agreed to be over-ruled by the then leadership of the ANC on who should be recommended for the board.

But even without such external involvement, both SABC and Icasa are also at least co-authors of bad decisions that have cumulatively done much to discredit their status. Political intervention is now needed to restore institutional coherence.

I can certainly hear the political people now calling for greater accountability of these two bodies, and with good cause.

But what I don’t hear from the same quarters is the inclusion of accountability to a participatory public. If autonomy ain’t working, it also won’t work to replace it with only political accounting.

Rather, it’s a matrix of accountability — to a wide range of stakeholders — that could help us reinvent relationships. Setting up systems for multiple accountability should be tried if we want to preserve a degree of autonomy for both SABC and Icasa.

For the special place of the communications sphere in society, that’s the right thing to do.