Why is there such a crisis at the SABC? The following presentation was made at a forum on civil society strategies to deal with the current crisis at the SABC. The forum was convened by the Open Society Foundation and attended by a range of civil society organisations and concerned individuals.
10 June 2008
Freedom of Expression Institute
In order to craft solutions to address the current crisis at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), it is necessary to analyze the roots of the crisis. In this presentation I will attempt to do just that. It seems fair to say that the SABC has been beset with instability for some time now. This could be attributed in part to the fact that the SABC has always been and remains a hybrid beast: part commercial broadcaster, part public broadcaster, it has lurched between the two for many years.
But the most important factor by far in the SABC’s instability could be attributed to the government’s twists and turns in its policy on parastatals. In fact, Roger Southall has identified at least three seismic policy shifts since 1994, which he has characterized rather crudely as a shift from the left, then to the right, and then back to the centre. It remains to be seen whether the events at Polokwane will trigger a fourth seismic shift towards the left. Any public institution that has been made to undergo three seismic shifts, with a fourth one looming, in a period of thirteen years, will be susceptible to instability, even crisis. I will analyse how these shifts in parastatal policy have affected the SABC, and further how they have contributed to the current crisis at the SABC.
From left to right: Sisulu to Matlare
In the period following the appointment of the 1993 Board, real attempts were made under the management of Zwelakhe Sisulu to transform the SABC from a state broadcaster to a public broadcaster in line with the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), and great deal of progress was made in this regard.
However, things began to go awry when Parliament was called on to respond to the recommendations of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) on the future of the SABC. It adopted the IBA’s recommendations selectively, without sufficient regard to the financial implications, precipitating the SABC’s first financial crisis in 1996. Most significant was the fact that Parliament was willing to concede only some project-based public funding for the broadcaster, rather than longer-term institutional funding. This project-based funding was to dry up shortly afterwards.
The decision to free the government from the obligation to fund the SABC on an ongoing basis led to the hurried drafting of the White Paper on Broadcasting Policy in 1997, and the Broadcasting Bill in 1998. While public consultation was still taking place on the appropriate model for the SABC, the Department of Communications decided to corporatise the SABC, and to divide its services into two divisions: the first would consist of purely commercial services, and the second of public services. The former was meant to cross-subsidise the latter. The Department also indicated that private equity may be introduced to the commercial services, which effectively meant that aspects of these services may be privatized. So hurried was the development of the Bill that many of its provisions were simply cribbed from Australian, British and Canadian legislation. Ten of the sixteen objectives in the SABC Charter were cut and pasted from the BBC Act. The Department’s approach to the SABC at the time was in line with general government policy, emphasizing fiscal constraint and privatization of profitable assets, and mirrored what Southall has characterized as a shift to the right in parastatal policy.
Under the leadership of Vincent Maphai, the Board set about implementing the Act. There is general consensus that the-then CEO, Hawu Mbatha, was weak, and the restructuring led to in-fighting amongst power blocs. When Peter Matlare was appointed, he focused on turning around the SABC’s finances, which he did with remarkable success, but to a significant extent at the expense of the public service mandate. Huge swathes of the SABC were commercialized, leading to its services prioritizing young, urban, upwardly mobile audiences at the expense of older, rural and unemployed audiences, and women. At one stage, whole formats were discontinued, such as drama.
From right to centre: Matlare to Mpofu
This ‘profits before people’ approach led to a public backlash against the SABC in 2002, resulting in changes to the Broadcasting Act in the form of the Broadcasting Amendment Bill. These changes sought to clarify the SABC’s mandate through the adoption of Editorial policies. By that stage, the Department had become extremely upset with the SABC’s overly commercial nature, and attempted to intervene by controlling the development of its Editorial policies, while setting up a parallel state broadcaster. After a public controversy, it backtracked on these intentions. This attempt to patch up the deficits of the White Paper has now led to a perverse situation where – in contrast to the IBA’s recommendation of the SABC having two television channels – it now has five, two of which have been put on ice.
The amendments to the Broadcasting Act coincided with another development, namely the ANC’s adoption of its first post-apartheid media policy at its Stellenbosch conference. In its policy, the ANC resolved to establish a publicly funded media model by the year 2012, starting with public funding for SABC services such as SABC 4 and 5, to reduce its overreliance on adspend. This model was necessary 'in order for the public and community media to serve as vehicles to articulate the needs of the poor, rural people, women, labour and other marginalised constituencies'. (ANC 2002: 5)
Having acknowledged the failure of its privatization programme to generate significant income for the state, and to ensure the empowerment of many black people, the ANC and the government began to espouse the notion of the ‘developmental state’, and argued in line with the East Asian model that the state had a responsibility to correct market failures. However, developmental states tend be inherently authoritarian, in that they involve development being ‘driven from the top’. In South Africa, this translated into power being centralized in the Executive, more especially in the Presidency. So it is hardly surprising that new Board appointments to the SABC, Transnet and South African Airways – which took place at roughly the same time – reportedly involved cadre deployment to ensure that these parastatals met developmental state objectives.
The Executive arm of government failed in its attempts at direct control of the SABC when amending the Broadcasting Act in 2002. So the only avenue left to it to steer the Corporation towards developmental objectives was to exercise indirect control through the appointment of the Executive and non-Executive Directors. With respect to the non-Executive Directors, the 2003 Board appointments were controversial, with opposition parties accusing the ANC of ramming its choices through the Parliamentary system. On the surface of things, the insertion of Parliament into the appointment process after the selection of the 1993 Board, was a perfectly reasonable step in a democratic dispensation where Parliament represents the will of the people.
However, the reality was somewhat different. The first problem with this appointment process is that it lends itself to horse-trading. Even more problems creep in when Parliament is dominated by one political party, especially if the party holds an outright majority, as this can lead to the majority party imposing its choices on the others. It has been well acknowledged that under Mbeki’s administration, Parliament was disempowered relative to the Executive, which meant that appointment processes controlled by Parliament rather than the Minister were still capable of being manipulated politically, including by members of the very Executive who are meant to account to Parliament.
Independence is not achieved through legislative guarantees alone. The ‘staging’ of a creative tension through the choice of Board members with dissimilar views is a crucial guarantor of the SABC’s independence, as no one stream of thought can dominate. On the other hand, selecting people with similar political views and economic interests, creates the potential for, at best, like-mindedness and at worst, elite pacting, which can lead to institutional biases creeping in insidiously, and infusing the SABC’s institutional culture. The Parliamentary process has not necessarily ensured a ‘staging’ of this diversity of opinion through its selection of Board members.
In fact, Parliament has tended to read the Broadcasting Act’s requirement for the Board to represent a cross-section of the population narrowly, to refer to the race and gender composition of the Board, without real regard to other questions of sectoral or even class representation. There has led to a clear bias in Board appointments towards business figures, and away from labour and civil society organisations; the latest Board does not even include practicing journalists. The need for skills, defined in the narrow technicist sense, has replaced the need for representivity. Undoubtedly, certain skills are needed to run an institution as complex as the SABC, but perhaps there is a need to think of skills in a different way, in that many people who may not have skills recognised by the formal market, may have other skills to offer that could enrich the Board, such as organising skills.
Parliament’s failure to think outside the box is perhaps an inevitable by-product of the contraction in the system of formal electoral multiparty politics, where genuine multiparty competition is limited. Given the dealignment of loyalty of some voters to particular parties, and the fact evident in the 2004 elections that more poor people are choosing to refrain from voting, public institution that have their Boards selected through Parliament are less likely to have their interests taken into account. In debating a new selection procedure for the Board, it is important to take all these factors into account.
Direct government control has been exercised over the appointment of Executive Directors. While corporatisation was meant to free government of the obligation to fund the SABC, it also introduced new forms of government control. In terms of the SABC’s Articles of Association, which were drafted in 2003 and revised in 2006, certain rights and responsibilities were assigned to the Minister, as the sole shareholder. Some of these rights strip the Board of the power to control its affairs, as required by the Broadcasting Act.
For instance, in terms of the SABC’s Articles of Association, the Board does not have final decision making powers over the appointment of the three Executive Directors (the Group Chief Executive Office, or GCEO; the Chief Financial Officer; and the Chief Operating Officer); it can merely make recommendations to the Minister. It should be borne in mind that the GCEO is also the editor-in-chief of the SABC, which means that the Minister has indirect control over the editorial content of the SABC. The Minister has total control over the proceedings of General Meetings, including the resolutions taken at that meeting.
Once the new Board was installed in 2003, it set about aligning the SABC with the government’s changed policy towards parastatals, and adopted a policy position favouring development journalism. However, they faced a problem, in that the then-CEO, Peter Matlare, was an inheritance from the ‘commercialisation before transformation’ era, and needed to be replaced. This was done, and Matlare was replaced by Dali Mpofu, but not before Snuki Zikalala was appointed as head of news to implement the development journalism agenda. There is nothing inherently problematic in a public broadcaster choosing a development journalism agenda: internationally, public broadcasters often decide to prioritise audiences whose interests may be marginalised by commercial, mainstream media. However, if the institution’s governance structure exhibits like-mindedness, this can lead to an assumption that there is only one definition of ‘development’ – namely the official development state model referred to above – and a failure to recognise that the development model is contested.
In fact, in order to re-orientate the SABC towards developmental state objectives, the Board probably felt a need to involve themselves in the day to day running of the organization, marking a shift from a policy making Board to an operational Board. In the process, it set the stage for structural conflict between itself and the SABC’s Group Executive over their respective roles.
Mpofu began his period in office on a good note, overseeing the implementation of a new strategy called ‘Broadcasting for Total Citizen Empowerment’. At last, there seemed to be a strategy that the SABC and civil society could unite around. However, his good intentions were to founder on the rocks of internal conflict around editorial values. This conflict resulted in repeated, and often arbitrary, management incursions into the decision-making of editorial staff under the guise of ensuring transformation objectives, leading to confusion and demoralization in the newsroom.
The conflicts over the coverage of Jacob Zuma relative to Thabo Mbeki, the Mbeki documentary, and the so-called ‘blacklisting saga’, all suggested the development of a culture of deference inside the SABC, combined with a fear of risk-taking. Corinna Arndt has noted that in a climate of uncertainty, where managers and even Board members dabble in decision-making that should be left to journalists, there is a growing tendency to self-censor to please the powers-that-be internally and externally, particularly when it comes to controversial decisions that may offend the government or the ruling party. The Broadcasting Act protects the SABC against external interference in editorial decision making; yet, internal pressure has been a much more significant threat to editorial independence than external pressure.
It should be noted, though, that quantitative data on SABC News and Current affairs, as reflected in the Media Monitoring Project (MMP) and Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) data has not necessarily bear out the qualitative data mentioned above. In this regard, it is worth noting that most of the recent editorial disputes have been about current affairs and programming, rather than news, which implies a timidity regarding the SABC’s role in forming opinions, rather than in making news. Also, the MMP and BCCSA data only considers what is broadcast, not what is not broadcast. There is a need for a media monitoring tool that measures both presences and absences in what is broadcast, otherwise it is impossible to track systematic suppression of stories that would, under optimum newsroom conditions, be considered newsworthy. Yet more recently, there is evidence of bias in broadcast material emerging in the quantitative data too, with Media Tenor having noted a marked difference relative to other media in the SABC’s coverage of Mbeki and Zuma after Polokwane, with Mbeki being covered in a neutral manner, while the coverage of Zuma has been overwhelmingly negative: a difference that will inevitably portray Mbeki as a more capable leader than Zuma in the run up to national elections.
To the left again? Polokwane and beyond
What does Polokwane mean for the SABC? Can the current crisis at the SABC be attributed simply to a grubby power struggle between Mbeki supporters and Zuma supporters, with the latter now trying to deploy their own cadres to displace the former? This, I would suggest, is a simplistic reading of the Polokwane shift; while it recognizes the threats for the SABC of this shift, it fails to recognize the opportunities.
The opportunities are that Parliament may, once again, find its voice. Many may be cynical about the Portfolio Committee’s sudden re-commitment to its oversight role, after years of relative inaction. They read malafides into this new energy, suspecting an attempt to remove the current Board, which was borne in sin, to allow them to stack it with Zuma supporters ahead of the elections. Parliament may be playing its oversight role patchily and inconsistently, but it is better than what we had. As civil society, our role should be to strengthen that role, while acknowledging the fact that Parliament is not the only forum where democracy is practiced in society.
Many say that the very Parliament that allowed three members of the current Board to be imposed on an otherwise reasonable process, must take responsibility for their mistake, rather than attempting to correct this mistake illegally. There is no provision in the Broadcasting Act for the removal of the Board as a whole, and individual members may be removed only on grounds of misconduct or incapacity and after an enquiry. People who make this argument fail to recognize that many ANC members went to Polokwane to stop precisely these sorts of practices from occurring again. To that extent, Polokwane has opened up spaces that may enhance, rather than reduce, the quality of democracy. These spaces may not last, and many may harbour some real doubts about the quality of leader that Polokwane chose, but it would be lost opportunity not to make full use of the spaces that have opened up. Had Polokwane not happened, the intractable situation at the SABC - where no matter what was attempted, nothing seemed to make a difference - could well have continued.
Some practical steps need to be taken. Firstly, civil society needs to take a position on the current Board. Given the evidence of political manipulation, should we call on the Board to resign, or only those members who were imposed on the process? If we take the latter position, then what about the observation made by Judge Moroa Tsoka in his reinstatement judgment of Mpofu that the Board needs to take collective responsibility for what he considered to be the improper and dishonest conduct of the Chair? What is clear is that inaction on the current Board’s composition is not an option. The most appropriate suggestion may well be to support publicly the call for a Commission of Enquiry into the recent goings on at the SABC, to establish in the cacophony of accusations and counter-accusations, who is right and who is wrong. This Commission could also investigate the manner in which the current Board was selected, and make recommendations. This is an urgent matter, given that a decision about the establishment of such a Commission may well be taken shortly.
Thirdly, civil society should also support the complaint at Icasa on the SABC’s failure to respond appropriately to the findings of the Sisulu Commission of Enquiry into allegations of blacklisting. This will ensure that pressure is placed on the Board to respond appropriately.
Fourthly, civil society needs to build links with the unions organizing in the SABC, and lend support. The idea of a general strike at the SABC is under discussion, given that wage negotiations have been delayed owing to the current crisis. No employee worth his or her salt can function effectively in a climate of such uncertainty, and we need to listen to what the employees are saying in this regard.
Fifthly, civil society needs to come up with recommendations on revisions to the Broadcasting Act. The appointment and removal procedures of the Board may well need to be changed. There are pros and cons to removing the selection role of Parliament, and replacing it with a panel, similar to a Broadcasting Services Panel. While a panel may well depoliticize the selection process, would such a panel be any more sensitive to inherent sectoral and class biases in the selection process than Parliament was? Yet at the same time there is a need to recognise that the situation has changed from the days of the Campaign for Independent Broadcasting, and that Parliament is now legitimate. Perhaps there is a need to craft a solution that marries the best of both proposals: a panel whose members consist of key constituencies, such as Parliament, government, labour, civil society and business. As these constituencies will choose their representatives, they will be – to an extent – self-selecting.
Other revisions need to be considered, including the need to develop a truly South African charter, and consideration needs to be given to provisions for periodic charter renewal. Mechanisms of public access to the Board, as well as to the SABC as a whole, need to be written into the Act. The role of the Board relative to Group Executive needs to be clarified. The appointment procedures of the Executive Directors need to be changed, to make the Board entirely responsible. The Minister’s role in relation to the SABC needs to be written out. Public funding needs to be secured for the SABC, and civil society needs to propose its own funding model. All these provisions require detailed proposals.
But perhaps all these measures will not be enough. If new policy decisions are to be taken about the SABC, then the old, flawed, policy decisions underlying the Broadcasting Act – based on the government imperative of the late 1990’s to drive the SABC into self-sufficiency - need to be reviewed. As the Charter was plagiarized from the BBC Charter, there has not been a proper debate about the contents of the Charter? Should the SABC be developmental in nature, or have a universal mandate? These are policy questions primarily. But the SABC has also been subject to general government policy on parastatals. The important point to recognize here is that government and Parliament has set up the SABC for instability, by chopping and changing policy so often. The crisis at the SABC is not simply about bad management, or havoc being wrought by government deployees intent on controlling the SABC. These are symptoms rather than causes of the problem.
For some time now, the SABC has been treated as a garden variety parastatal, which has failed to recognize the SABC’s distinctive qualities, and peculiar needs for independence and accountability. The Broadcasting Policy and Act are based on this view. The SABC should not be treated like Transnet, SAA, or – heaven forbid – Eskom. It is not coincidental that two parastatals – namely Eskom and the SABC – are experiencing crises at the same time. Inappropriate policy decisions to make the public service mandates of these organizations subject to vagaries of a commercial model, coupled with inappropriate attempts to correct these problems, are now coming back to bite them.
This means that a new SABC Act should flow logically from a policy review, implying the need for a Green Paper/ White Paper process to precede the Bill. The SABC Act will take longer to conclude, but if the Act is promulgated on the basis of the existing policy, it will be built in a policy base that has been proved to be flawed. A policy review should set the SABC onto a path of stability once and for all. And once this happens, perhaps we can realize an SABC that will make us all proud.