In 1992 the Campaign for Open Media joined the United Democratic Front to demand the demise of the apartheid regime’s SABC and its transformation into an open, transparent public broadcaster. At the time, it was Cyril Ramaphosa who set out one of the most significant principles underpinning an independent broadcaster.
“The ANC is committed to public broadcasting which is independent of the government of the day, and which owes its loyalty not to any party, but to the population as a whole.”
He continued to set out some of the conditions for this, identifying the appointment (and dismissal) of the board as a central pillar of this independence.
“To achieve [an independent SABC board] it must be appointed by a visibly independent process enjoying as much popular participation as possible. This is our immediate priority and must be the first focus of our campaign.
“We believe it is possible to achieve this immediately. It is not necessary that we go through a process involving extensive legislative changes, thereby making ourselves, and fair broadcasting, hostage to a parliamentary process beyond our control.”
We had this new public broadcaster for a while – an SABC that was as hard on the new democratically elected dispensation as it was on the conservative forces trying to stymie progress. It built a culture of frank talk about past, present and continuing injustices, as well as social cohesion.
That was the broadcaster that worked, one that brought us hard, investigative journalism that:
. Exposed corruption and maladministration in public offices and institutions through the programme Special Assignment;
. Drove debate about the successes and failings of the public and private sectors through the wildly popular Interface; and
. Supported continuing learning for people of all ages and demographics through the exceptional content produced under SABC Education.
It is not only alarming but deeply saddening to watch our hard-won public broadcaster regressing once again into a state broadcaster under the watch and with the consent of parliamentary representatives. Many of these very people were integral to the liberation of South Africa from an unjust, authoritarian regime.
This is what happened in Parliament on Tuesday, when the portfolio committee on communications not only eschewed its endorsement of the legal opinion it sought – which set out why the SABC board’s unilateral purging of its members under the aegis of the minister of communication was unlawful – but went as far as adopting the ill-contrived and deliberately distorted legal interpretation that the SABC is a state-owned company like any other.
That was how Minister Faith Muthambi presented it before the portfolio committee.
Though owned by the state, and embattled as it is, the SABC is not a state-owned company like SAA or Eskom. We are talking about an institution established as a national public broadcaster in the Broadcasting Act. It is the single largest mass-communication medium in the country, the principal source of information for 24 million daily listeners and 7.5 million TV households.
Parliament is established as a forum in which members are duty-bound to oversee and enforce executive compliance with the laws it enacts. Instead of discharging this duty for the benefit of the public that elected it, on Tuesday these members of Parliament fell derelict of this responsibility. They allowed the SABC to be forced into being a state broadcaster like we had under apartheid; a broadcaster that was subject to the control of the government of the day through a partisan selection of board members and senior executives, and which drove a one-dimensional, state-issued message of a “good story to tell”.
One needn’t be a legal expert to see that when the SABC board seeks the consent of the communications minister – and not our elected representatives in Parliament – not only to hire and fire senior executives but also to fire its own members, it is no longer as independent of state influence as it claims to be.
Further, it is simply gobsmacking how the minister was able to reconcile herself to this unconscionable and ill-conceived interpretation of the law. It bypasses even the authority of the first official of the land who, himself, is responsible for the appointment of board members on the advice of Parliament.
Phamodi is the Coordinator of the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition