12 JUNE 2009
SABC: Broadcaster disaster

by Barney Mthombothi: Editor of Financial Mail.

There is no accurate word in the English vocabulary to aptly describe the mess at the SABC. Maybe such a word or phrase has yet to be coined.

Shame or embarrassment does not even begin to capture the amalgam of utter madness, incompetence, greed, and vanity that has reduced a once proud institution into the butt of jokes and ridicule. George Orwell must have had the SABC in mind when he penned Animal Farm, his classic novel on how greed and wickedness can betray a revolution. The pigs have taken control at the SABC, and they're merrily trashing the place. That probably doesn't even tell the whole story. Others may see the need to throw a bit of Kafka in there too. Things aren't always what they seem.

What's happening at the SABC is no laughing matter, though. It's a sad situation. Mention the SABC, and people simply sigh and their eyes glaze over. To even write about the thing seems such a waste of valuable space. The SABC always reminds one of Zimbabwe: how avarice and sycophancy to political masters could easily turn what had the promise of a jewel into a subject for morbid hilarity.

If the SABC buildings could talk, they would tell of ancient ghosts walking the dark corridors of the place who were not dissimilar to the empty suits now in charge, who are also always mindful of which boots to lick. Piet Meyer, father of the SABC in its apartheid heyday, would recognise the place. He would be comfortable in its surrounds were he to return. Nothing has changed. Only the characters are a shade different: from mostly white to mostly black. The ruling credo is still one of fawning on authority, irrespective of what the precepts and codes may say. That, I suppose, is the only way to hold onto your job, to earn an ever-bulging salary package when everything around you is dissolving into a shambles.

Except for a brief moment during Nelson Mandela's presidency, the story of the SABC, from apartheid up to now, has been the same. It is a story of political interference, of politicians who, in order to control the message, have sought to corral the messenger; and of spineless management who are only too pleased to comply or connive. In a country where the majority are illiterate, the SABC is too powerful an institution - it reaches millions who can neither read nor write - for the politicians to leave alone.

The current crisis was, however, worsened by ANC infighting. ANC parliamentarians were happy to go along with Thabo Mbeki's choice of SABC board members when he was president. But they changed their tune after his defeat by Jacob Zuma, and adopted a scorched-earth policy to remove the board. That paralysed the place.

The financial crisis is not unrelated to political interference. Those who're politically connected simply spend money they don't have. The word "budget" doesn't exist. The SABC is in a sense reaping the fruits of the ANC's deployment policy; of placing people in critical positions irrespective of the level of their competence as long as they're loyal to the ruling party. The results of such a misguided policy are there for all to see - in parastatals and all layers of government.

Mbeki was wrong to impose a new board in the face of such fierce resistance. But his rivals were also out of line to destabilise the board once it was in place. That has only worsened the situation. However, that's now water under the bridge.

It's clear the board has lost the authority to run the place. It's now turned on itself. It should do the honourable thing and resign, and a process should commence immediately to replace it. That new board will then have the authority to appoint new managers.

There has to be a complete clearing out of the entire board and what now passes for management if the SABC is to stand any chance of fulfilling its public mandate.


Source: The Financial Mail is South Africa's leading publication in its field. It provides the most comprehensive coverage of investment, business, financial, political and social trend. Visit our web-site at: http://www.fm.co.za.

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