Political meddling at the SABC, along with its present crisis of
governance, has prompted several civic organisations to launch a bid to
return the national broadcaster to the public, writes Wilson Johwa in Business Day.

Groups including Sangonet, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre , the Freedom of Expression Institute , the Media Monitoring Project, Oxfam, the Open Society Foundation, the National Consumer Forum and the University of the Witwatersrand’s journalism and media studies department met last month to set up a committee to lead efforts to reclaim the broadcaster.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is also keen on getting involved.

“We’ve had much longer disagreements with the SABC. Their coverage of labour and working class issues is not consistent with a public broadcaster, particularly if you contrast it with their coverage of business,” says Cosatu’s Patrick Craven.

The parties intend identifying strategies for dealing with the immediate crisis evident in the tussle between the SABC’s board and management.

They also seek to make recommendations on amendments to the Broadcasting Act as well as to look into the ownership structure, including the appointment of the board and adoption of a fresh charter.

The SABC is one of the most fought-over institutions in SA, reflecting varying sectional grievances as well as wider political and social interests. “We’re a very difficult country to provide broadcasting for — we’re multiracial, multicultural and multilingual,” says media attorney Justine Limpitlaw.

The present battle mirrors the factionalism in the African National Congress (ANC).

“The reason why the infighting is permeating to the SABC board is because the SABC is anything but a public broadcaster,” says Bantu Holomisa, leader of the opposition United Democratic Movement , who supports the civic campaign.

Ironically, with an election approaching next year, the struggle for control of the SABC is something of a throwback to the ’90s when a public campaign created the impetus for transformation of the SABC in time for the 1994 polls.

“We’re back to a time when the state has developed significant controls over the SABC,” says Jeanette Minnie, one of the activists involved in the old fight and also associated with the new initiative.

The head of the journalism department at Wits University, Anton Harber, says: “I think there is a realisation that you can’t just rely on those in power.

“You need the public to get out there and demand to assert its rights. One of those rights is to have a public broadcaster that behaves like a public broadcaster.”

Civil society wants the ANC to recommit itself to the principle of a public broadcaster, which they argue is also in the interests of the party.

“The lesson of the previous era is that a state broadcaster controlled by politicians has low credibility,” Harber says.

Click here to read the full report, posted on Business Day's website.