There's been general agreement that the people nominated for positions on the SABC board are competent for the job. But Raymond Louw points out that a number are members of the ANC, which demands particular loyalty from card-carrying members. 

Raymond Louw writes in Business Day:

AFTER observing the searching hearings conducted by Parliament’s portfolio committee on communications of the candidates for selection to the SABC governing board, most of the country appears to have accepted those nominated as competent and fit for the demands that will be made of them.

They are regarded as knowledgeable and capable people who will steer the public broadcaster out of the morass, which the previous board helped to create, and put it on a constructive growth path.

The nominations are still to be discussed by Parliament and that institution’s final selection will be the one that President Jacob Zuma will appoint to the board.

But is that a correct assessment of the quality of the new board?

Some opposition political parties are scathing in their accusations that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has again deployed a strong ANC support group into the 12-person board. Last time around the focus was on four people the ANC parliamentary caucus selected to play a political role, reportedly at the instigation of former president Thabo Mbeki .

This time, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), the Congress of the People (COPE) and the Independent Democrats (ID), have pointed out five nominees who were steamrolled on to the list by the ANC members of the portfolio committee. The opposition had agreed with the selection of seven of the 12 board members but dug their heels in over the nomination of the five.

Stories leaked from the closed deliberations of the committee suggested that the ANC would not budge and were determined their nominees would prevail. Indeed, the five the ANC were determined to keep on the list were those nominated by the party or its alliance partners. The names were proposed by the ANC at the start of the proceedings and the public hearings of other candidates appeared to have had no effect on that list.

The perception gained was that these were political nominees being deployed on to the SABC board. The attitude of the ANC portfolio committee members reminded people of the triumphant manner in which Dr Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri , after serving as SABC board chairwoman during the ANC’s first term in power, disclosed that she had been deployed to the position by the ANC.

The five that were contested were media and journalism consultant and former SABC staffer David Niddrie, because he was nominated by the South African Communist Party; retired ANC diplomat Barbara Masekela; Clifford Motsepe, who was nominated by the ANC Youth League; Desmond Golding, economic adviser to the public works minister; and Dr Ben Ngubane, former arts and culture minister.

The SABC board oversees a huge operation, which is intended to operate as a public broadcaster, that is distinct from a party political mouthpiece — which is what the SABC was in the days of National Party rule when the government exercised tight control over the broadcaster and its programmes, especially news and current affairs.

With SA now a democracy it is to be expected that members of more than one party will reach the new board. But the concern is that there is an alarming majority of ANC members or supporters of its policies on the board.

So should the opposition’s fears about ANC power be taken seriously?

Apart from the fact that there a case could be made that the chosen candidates resign their party memberships to show their independence as custodians of a public broadcaster — though, admittedly, their political sympathies would remain — the question of party membership in SA revolves around the character of the parties.

Nominee Suzanne Vos is an Inkatha Freedom Party politician. In signing up as a member of that party, according to the party's website, she was required to subscribe to the vision, principles, programme of action and mission statement of the party and also abide by its constitution.

This wording is almost standard for political parties and embraces general support for the party and its policies.

But the ANC is different. It started out as a liberation movement and as such required a lot more from members. Since assuming power in 1994, it has not changed its demands on its membership so that they could conform to those of a political party rather than those of a militant liberation operation.

Its website has a strong authoritative tone where the duties outlined for a member are strict. Among them are requirements that a member will:

* Belong to and take an active part in the life of his or her branch.

* Take all necessary steps to understand and carry out the aims, policy and programme of the ANC.

* Observe discipline, behave honestly and carry out loyally decisions of the majority and decisions of higher bodies.

The membership form states: “I, …, solemnly declare that I will abide by the aims and objectives of the African National Congress … work as a loyal member of the organisation, that I will place my energies and skills at the disposal of the organisation and carry out tasks given to me …”

Clearly an ANC board member is posed with a conflict of interest between carrying out the duties handed down by the party’s “higher bodies” while trying at the same time to be a diligent member of an independent public broadcaster.

Indeed, this conflict is at the core of the ANC’s deployment policy in all sectors of the public service and elsewhere, but it is more noticeable in an institution in the glare of publicity such as the SABC.

Membership of the South African Communist Party also places demands on its members to be active and campaigning, with the added requirement that they support the ANC. The power of the ANC’s “higher bodies” are clearly not underestimated by ANC members. One has only to recall the response of former president Thabo Mbeki when the “higher bodies” — a delegation from the party’s National Executive Committee — called on him to resign last year, which he did without demur.

Loyal members of the ANC do not buck the “higher bodies”.

The question this raises is how those members of the ANC on the board will respond when they are given instructions from the “higher bodies”. The suspicion is that in carrying out instructions, ANC board members may turn the SABC away from its public broadcaster role.

* Louw is editor and publisher of Southern Africa Report and deputy chairman of the SA Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa. In 1993-94 he was co- chairman of the Campaign for Open Broadcasting. This article first appeared in Business Day on 25 September 2009.