An interim new board is not going to solve the corporation’s woes — it
will only play into the hands of the ruling party, writes Dene Smuts in the Sunday Times.

Dene Smuts of the Democratic Alliance writes in the Sunday Times:

General Siphiwe Nyanda should sit back, put his boots on his desk and stop sending in toy tanks to try to stop the Prague spring at the SABC.

Democracy has had its best deal since the 1994 elections under this SABC board, and the new communications minister has no firepower. His announcement that the president will appoint a new interim board in two weeks’ time is fantasy, whatever his commanders at Luthuli House told him.

Neither this president nor former president Thabo Mbeki has had any discretion in the appointment of either the SABC board or an “interim board”, which is an invention the ANC wrote into law as part of its attempt to purge the sitting board before the elections.

Parliament invites public nominations, shortlists, interviews in public and votes on the exact number of board members. A president signs on the dotted line simply because parliament has no executive powers. The government cannot choose board members because the SABC enjoys section 16 media freedom from the government of the day and its board has a duty to protect the free-speech rights of its editors and journalists.

The fact that Luthuli House persuaded the ANC caucus in parliament to insert three names over and above the nine others all MPs wanted, before the national assembly voted the list through, is a subversion of the parliamentary process. But because it was embraced by the ANC MPs, the board was properly elected by parliament and properly signed off by Mbeki. It was not a Mbeki board, no matter how many times numerous newspapers called it that. During the 2009 election, opposition parties had their first fair coverage since 1994.

Yet many newspapers, which will apparently print any disinformation as long as it is sensational, have continued accusing the SABC of being His Master’s Voice. In the process they, and not the SABC editorial teams, have become the voice of the very master who has openly driven the attempt at a political purge.

The need for due inquiry had been expressly deleted by the terrified ANC MPs during the legislative process after a submission by the SACP, which called due process a counter-revolutionary attempt to protect bourgeois space. It was put back after the DA’s petition. That is why the chairman of the portfolio committee on communications, Ismail Vadi, is now forced to fulfil all the dictates of fair procedure and being frustrated in every attempt to purge without due process.

Please discard any illusions that the ANC has any desire either to know what caused or fix the financial meltdown at the SABC. It offers the perfect excuse to implement the Polokwane resolution to fund 60% of SABC requirements as a strategic asset directly from your tax money.

The ANC MPs in the communications committee tried, to no avail, to pass a motion of no confidence in the board at its first appearance before the committee, which selected it on April 30 2008, when the board was just four months old. The committee refused to deal with the budget and strategic plan that were on the agenda, which the board inherited from then CEO Dali Mpofu and his strategy and risk manager, Sipho Sithole, and which the board did not like. Addressing the national assembly at the time, I said the ANC MPs in the communications committee were like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, who said: “First the sentence, then the verdict.” Let alone any charge, trial or inquiry preceding the verdict and the sentence.

It was the same thing this week. All the political party whips were advised there would be a special sitting of the national assembly at noon on Thursday to pass a resolution dissolving the board.

Then they were advised that the sitting was cancelled because the inquiry would be conducted on Thursday afternoon.

On Thursday, the whips were advised before the various party caucuses, which always occur on Thursday mornings, that there would be a plenary sitting at 9am on Friday (before the scheduled 10am budget votes) to deal with an SABC motion . First the sentence, then the verdict … And never mind inquiry, trial by media was enough.

By 4pm on Thursday, as we sat on the green leather benches of the wood-panelled old assembly debating the environment and tourism budget, a note was passed around to postpone the 9am sitting on Friday.

The meltdown was not visible, but the deficit which SABC board chairman Khanyi Mkhonza has warned against since the start of her service was discernible. She wrote to Vadi in early 2009 to ask for the committee’s engagement on a looming R700-million-plus deficit, to no avail.

You do not have to look much beyond the CEO — former and acting, but especially former — for the source of the financial woes.

My old foe, Christine Qunta, has written that the appointment of a new CEO after much head-hunting is imminent, as is the appointment of a news head to replace my other old foe, Snuki Zikalala. She says that must explain the present panic.

I believe her. The DA will not let this attempted purge go without challenge any more than we have allowed it before: we have kept it back since Polokwane, and we are not about to stop now.

The four remaining board members must remain. The vacancies must be filled. Why go through the same parliamentary recommendation process that will give you five so-called interim members after the board’s dissolution, when it could give you eight members to fill the unexpired portion of the term of the eight members who have resigned?

And then President Jacob Zuma would be able to choose the chair and deputy chair, whereas the Broadcasting Amendment Act now dictates that parliament chooses those positions in an interim board.

* Smuts is former DA spokesman on communications. This article firs appeared in the Sunday Times on 21 June 2009.