The draft law being pushed through parliament in a bid to address the SABC crisis could easily make matters worse, writes Anton Harber in Business Day.  Better alternatives must be found.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

PARLIAMENT’s portfolio committee on communications is trying to fix the mess-up it made with the SABC board, but could just as easily make things worse. It was this committee that allowed improper political interference in the appointment of the new board late last year, leading to the current impasse.

At the moment, the committee wants to get rid of the board, the board wants to get rid of the CEO and the CEO wants to fire the head of news — and none of them has the power or standing to do any of it. The result is a horrible legal and political mess.

Now the committee has tabled a proposed amendment to the Broadcasting Act which will give it the power to deal with SABC board members who are unable to perform their task. Parliament would have to institute an inquiry and find that the person was unfit for office, and then pass a resolution instructing the president to dismiss that member.

The draft limits the reasons an individual can be dismissed — if they are guilty of misconduct, cannot perform their duties efficiently, are absent from more than three meetings, fail to disclose a conflict of interest or are disqualified from holding the office. Note that they cannot be dismissed because the committee feels it erred in putting them there in the first place, which is what they really want to do.

The draft law also says, enigmatically, that if Parliament resolves that the entire board should be removed, then the president must dissolve the board and appoint an interim one. This seems to imply that it must follow an inquiry into each member and their competence, but this is not clear.

If the committee has to hold an inquiry into each member, it will prove long and complicated, with the outcome by no means certain and subject to endless legal dispute. It will certainly not be a quick way for the committee to mend its error ( the process could not start until the new law is promulgated, which will take at least six months). It will leave the SABC rudderless for months.

IF PARLIAMENT does not need an inquiry and can simply pass a resolution telling the president to dissolve the board, then it will set a dangerous precedent for political interference in a board.

The draft law says that if the board is dissolved (and clearly this is what the committee wants to do), the president appoints an interim board to work with executive directors (who would, it seems, be excluded from the dismissals). There is no process for the appointment of this interim board, no stipulations on who these board members might be and no time frame for their replacement by a proper board. This therefore gives the Presidency the power to seize direct control of the SABC at a time of crisis.

In trying to solve an immediate problem, the parliamentary committee is in danger of introducing a range of things which will be damaging in the long run.

It should be addressing, at the same time, measures to ensure that future appointments are made more effectively. I have previously argued for an independent panel rather like the Judicial Service Commission to fill this function. The new civil society coalition, which has come together to try to represent the public interest amid all this intraparty political infighting, has questioned whether this would have the desired effect and has made some valuable suggestions to improve the process.

It might be more important, it suggests, that rules be written to ensure the selection process is more transparent, that nominators be identified, that political interference in the process be made illegal, and that the committee be made to justify its recommendations in writing.

These are small but significant things, which could go some way to avoiding this kind of mess in the first place.

Let’s hope Parliament takes a long view of this, and does not whip through a bad law to fix a short-term problem.

# Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. this column first appeared in Business Day on July 9.