Friday, October 22, 2010

COSATU urges Parliament to back SABC Board

The Congress of South African Trade Unions deeply regrets that Wednesday’s meeting between the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications (PPC) and the SABC Board failed to resolve the serious problems facing South Africa’s public broadcaster.

While the Board members deserve criticism for failing to produce a written performance review of its first six months in charge, the MPs should have probed deeper into the underlying reasons behind the ongoing crisis facing the board, rather than saying, as they did, that “the board had failed to do its job… and failed to provide coherent leadership and to provide proper corporate governance over the SABC."

The new board was elected after an extensive process of consultation. It includes people from a range of civil society, labour, business and political organisations and was broadly representative of South African society. They had integrity and skills and deserved the full support from everyone interested in saving and transforming a valuable national, especially Parliament.

From the outset however, as it got to work to tackle the massive financial and administrative problems they inherited, the board was dogged by attempts to undermine its role.

In May 2010 11 Board members issued a statement outlining serious corporate governance breaches, particularly over the unilateral appointment of the Head of News by the Chairperson, Dr. Ben Ngubane, in violation of the Broadcasting Act 1999 and the SABC’s Articles of Association. In our view Dr Ngubane, who clearly never attended any democratic meeting in his life, is at the centre of the SABC challenge.
There was persistent undermining of the board’s governance role, most notably during battles over the performance of the GCEO, Solly Mokoetle, who ignored and overturned board decisions and yet was supported in this by Dr. Ngubane. He appeared to believe he did not need the approval of his board on any matter, and was clearly not familiar with the culture and traditions of our democratic society.

Effective oversight and leadership of the SABC suffered deeply due to this stand-off between the Chairperson and CEO on the one hand and the rest of the Board members on the other, and board meetings were constantly cancelled. The GCEO, amongst others, is facing charges for failure to submit a turnaround strategy.

This helps to explain why, after nine months in office, the Board has still not been able to draft a turn-around strategy. Strangely this is now blamed on the very board that is attempting to address the paralysis.

The lack of board meetings has also meant that none of the policy issues raised with the SABC
by the independent production sector and the unions have been addressed. It is public knowledge that board meetings were cancelled on last minute by the board chairperson.
All this led to the resignation of four board members. If this continues it will be devastating for the future of the public broadcaster.

COSATU welcomed the PPC’s decision to exercise its oversight role over the SABC by holding a hearing into the controversy around the appointment of the Head of News, progress on the drafting of the SABC’s turnaround strategy and the overall functionality of the Board.
But when a date was finally fixed for a hearing on 24 August 2010, COSATU was dismayed that it was to be held behind closed doors, when transparency and accountability to the public was paramount.

Yesterday’s hearing, this time in public, should have been the opportunity to clear the air and back up the board. Events however suggest that the PPC is trying to absolve itself from any responsibility for the crisis. Neither Parliament nor the Minister have played their roles effectively. When the Minister did intervene he did not address the governance breaches and back up the board, but instead reduced the problem to board members simply not getting along with one another.

We strongly urge that the PPC, at the next hearing scheduled for November 2010, must insist that the constitutionally appointed board be allowed to do its job without interference from the Minister and other parties pursuing narrow political interests. We also urge the board members to make sure that they submit the necessary reports and supporting documents.
Unfortunately the issue has been clouded by rumours and allegations against members of the board. Not a shred of evidence has yet been produced for any of these allegations, yet their constant repetition seems to be bearing out Josef Goebbels’ notorious maxim that if a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes accepted as the truth. If there is any evidence, let it be made public; if not, let us hear no more of it.

COSATU welcomes the decision to advertise the vacant positions on the board immediately and urges all civil society organisations and the unions speedily to nominate qualified and representative candidates. It is urgent, because the longer the governance crisis continues, the harder it will be to convince quality candidates to serve as board members, and the long-term sustainability of the SABC will suffer.

COSATU believes that control of the SABC has to be in the hands of the board that was put in place by a public and democratic process and is answerable to Parliament. In this regard we call on the Minister of Communication and all other interests groups to give the Board space to conduct its business within the ambit of the law and articles of association. That is the principle that the PPC should have insisted on supporting.

The SABC is the only vehicle which can possibly speak for all South Africans in their own languages and reflect our lives, our history our culture and the political debates of the day. The board must be empowered and charged with the momentous task of ensuring that our public broadcaster plays the role laid down in our constitution.