Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Always a political hand to spoil

Editorial, Business Day, Johannesburg, 31 August 2010

IT IS impossible for outsiders to assess the merits or otherwise of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) board’s decision to suspend CEO Solly Mokoetle, just as it is impossible to know whether accusations of nepotism and abuse of authority levelled at certain board members have any basis in fact. It is all so horribly messy, and depressingly familiar.

The truth, or a version thereof, may come out in the wash eventually, but there are no guarantees. Mr Mokoetle’s lawyer is on record stating that any charges served on his client or disciplinary action taken against him will be resisted, but it is equally possible that a settlement will be reached behind closed doors. It’s only taxpayers’ money, after all, and payoffs have become the norm in government departments and many state-owned enterprises.

Similarly, now that Parliament’s communications committee has been interdicted by the media from holding its hearing on the SABC in camera, it does not necessarily follow that the public broadcaster’s dirty linen will be hung out to dry in public. There is too much at stake for too many well-connected individuals for transparency to triumph without more of a fight.

This newspaper warned when interim chairwoman Irene Charnley was wrapping up her rescue mission that the appointment of a new CEO should be left to the new board, since it would have to work with him or her. Now the SABC is back at square one, with the board and CEO at loggerheads and the corporation rudderless. This is little different from the predicament that necessitated the interim board being called in in the first place, and much good work is in danger of unravelling.

It is disingenuous of Mr Mokoetle’s supporters to claim, as proof that he is being victimised, an apparent "turnaround" to profitability achieved over the past eight months. A R100m profit means little in the context of the World Cup windfall and a government bail-out totalling hundreds of millions of rand following last year’s horrendous deficit.

Mr Mokoetle was tasked with devising a turnaround plan, and if he has failed to do so it is better that the board intervene sooner rather than later. The SABC is in desperate need of decisive management, including performance targets for middle management, and that demands a clear vision and operational agenda from the CEO.

It is trite to observe that politics is the real reason the SABC keeps lurching from crisis to crisis, but it is unavoidably true that the pattern is likely to be repeated for as long as control of the public broadcaster is perceived to be so closely associated with power in this country. The process of selecting the current board was generally accepted as being above board, and there are some good people with useful skills among its members. Sadly, there is just too much at stake politically for them to be left alone to get on with their jobs without constant interference, some subtle and some more direct.

The only real solution would be for the state to get out of commercial broadcasting and news entirely and confine itself to a single public service television channel and perhaps two or three radio stations. A public broadcaster that was funded by the state rather than advertising, and did not have ambitions beyond a mandate to produce local content and encourage the use of the vernacular, would be less contentious and less of a drain on the public purse.

Unfortunately, in the real world incumbent politicians — especially those who believe they will be in power indefinitely — cannot resist the temptation to secure an advantage over their opponents by controlling the airwaves, which doesn’t bode well for the SABC’s future stability or credibility.