The new SABC board should be composed not of representatives of different sectors of society, nor even primarily people with particular skills, but of people with a strong sense of civic duty who know what it means to serve on the board of a major corporation, writes Anton Harber in Business Day.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

THERE was a glaring miscommunication in the announcement that Dali Mpofu had received a reward of R11m for his role in getting the SABC to the mess it is currently in.

We were told that R4m was a restraint of trade to prevent him working for, or setting up, a rival company. Surely you would want him to work for one of your competitors? Shouldn’t the condition of the R4m payout be that he goes to work at or M- Net? Preferably in their department of financial controls? Now that would be money well spent.

I joke, but new SABC chairwoman Irene Charnley deserves praise for sorting these things out and allowing the public broadcaster to move ahead. She did what a chairman is supposed to do: clear the decks so that everyone can get down to the work they are supposed to be doing.

Also, she can quite safely promise anything, since the SABC ignores its creditors and doesn’t pay its bills when things get tough. If Mpofu has to join the queue for his payment, he can expect it around mid-2012, if he gets all the paperwork right. And there will be nobody at the SABC who can tell him what paperwork is required.

I joke again. I am quite sure he is at the front of the payment queue. As always. It is those who have been hard at work for the past six months who will have to do the waiting.

Anyway, the focus is now on the appointment of a new board and CEO. I hope that the parliamentary committee and the SABC itself are thinking carefully about how to ensure that they choose the best possible candidates, and do so in a way that ensures the board has impeccable credibility and authority.

What do I mean by the best possible candidates? There are clearly different views of what is required from SABC board members. There are some who want to see their representatives on the board, so that their views are heard. They argue that the most important thing is that the board is broadly representative of the various stakeholders. There are some who are most concerned about business skills and experience, and some who argue that the most important thing is that board members should have a deep understanding of media and journalism. And there are some who are concerned, above all, by the public service record of the candidates.

I want to deal with this by telling a story. On the second day of the last board’s term of office, before they had even met, at least one member had a call from the president’s office to tell him that they needed to get rid of Mpofu as CEO.

The board member told me that he rebuffed the intervention as there was no way he was going to judge Mpofu even before they had met him.

One can assume that others received that call, perhaps even the chairman, and that was why the campaign against Mpofu began within days.

The point of this story is that it would have made no difference if that board member had represented a particular constituency, understood journalism or had business experience. What mattered is that the person had a sense of public service and the gravitas to stand up to an attempt to interfere improperly.

That, more than anything else, is what a board member needs. They need to be heavyweight, they need to know what it takes to operate on the board of a major company, and they need a deep sense of public service and the values that go with that.

The rest can be learnt, or expertise can be consulted where it is needed.

Now that there is so much attention on the appointment of the SABC board, we could use it to develop a practice of public scrutiny — and the SABC itself could play a major role in this.

They could start by putting journalists on to examine all the CVs of the candidates, do short on- air pieces about who they are and what qualifies them for the post, and give them a chance to state their case. They could seek out any skeletons in their closets. They could host public on-air debates about the candidates, they could broadcast live their appearances before the parliamentary committee, and they could put all the information they gather on to the web.

That would be public service.

* Harber is Caxton professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand. This column first appeared in Business Day on 19 August 2009.