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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 7, No. 20, 19 November 2008

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Transform and rebuild the confidence of our people in the national broadcaster

Blade Nzimande, General Secretary

This week is going to be an important week in the history of our attempts to build a truly national broadcaster that serves the interests of the public without fear or favour. Part of this struggle is to liberate the public broadcaster from the clutches of a narrow class and political agenda that threatens to erode the many gains we have made since 1994 towards creating a broadcaster that will serve the developmental agenda of a democratic South Africa.

We recently participated in a debate at the Wits Great Hall discussing the question of whether the SABC has become a state broadcaster. Our answer to that question was, and still is, that the SABC has become something worse than a state broadcaster, and has in effect been turned into an instrument for a faction that still remains relatively dominant within the state, and which was, until December 2007, dominant in the ANC as well.

Since holding this debate last week, SABC News in particular has deteriorated even further, blatantly supporting the new breakaway faction from the ANC, not only through news, but with some of its personnel actively collaborating with, and working for, the ANC dissidents. What SABC News is doing is in fact a continuation of its role in the run up to the ANC’s Polokwane Conference. In the run up to this conference it acted not only in a factionalist, but also divisive, manner in support of a particular grouping of comrades within our movement.

Our vision for a public broadcaster

It is important that we first remind ourselves why now, and during the negotiations at the CODESA , we strongly argued for the transformation of the SABC into a public, rather than a, state broadcaster. Some of the reasons for this included the following:

  • We wanted a break with the apartheid regime’s model, which was that of a broadcaster run not only by the state, but narrowly by the then ruling, apartheid National Party
  • Most importantly we wanted a public broadcaster whose board and ethos would represent the widest possible spectrum of the public, with a particular bias towards the informational, news and educational needs of the overwhelming majority of our people, the workers and the poor
  • We want the public to shape and determine the character of public institutions serving it, and hence our insistence on a transparent public process to nominate board members and for those nominations and appointments to be done through the democratically elected representatives with input from the public in general
  • In this process we had also envisaged civil society formations playing a role in the nominations of board members as well as lobby public representatives to appoint in line with the legislative and constitutional principles underpinning public broadcasting.  By civil society formations we meant those that are broad based not just its elite components that tend to be well funded and representing elite sections of society
  • We also envisaged a publicly funded broadcaster, and not one that is subjected to capitalist market driven sources of funding, heavily reliant on advertising and thus becoming an instrument of sections of those with resources who subtly influence what can or cannot be broadcast through their deep pockets.
  • The public broadcaster should support a developmental agenda through programming content biased towards priority issues such as unemployment, poverty and HIV Aids.
  • Voices of ordinary people should be heard through local content, supporting the arts sports and culture reflecting of cultural practices in our society.
  • News that reflects our overall developmental priorities and not based on biased selectively and sensationalism. We envisaged a public broadcaster with depth of analysis and coverage, reflecting the diversity of views whilst fundamentally advancing the interests of the majority who are black, women, poor, working class and speak 9 other, often underused, languages.

Does the current SABC meet the above criteria?

Despite the many, though uneven, advances made towards the realization of the above objectives, the current state of the SABC actually threatens to undermine the realization of these transformational goals.

Firstly, the current board, not unlike its predecessor, is unrepresentative of the broad spectrum of South African society, and this constitutes its fundamental deficiency. It has excluded active representatives of the working class in general particularly its organized sections, the mass movement, progressive non-governmental organizations and other sections of society that represent the overwhelming mass of the workers and the poor of our country. It is predominantly composed of business people!

Secondly, the SABC, especially its board and news division, has become captive to a faction that has become dominant in the state, ruling party and sections of business; what the SACP refers to as the 1996 class project. The 1996 class project represents a new ‘tripartite alliance’ in our society, made up of a section of our cadre in the state, sections of white domestic and global capital, and sections of the emergent black bourgeoisie. This project, which has largely been displaced within the leadership structures of the ANC and our Tripartite Alliance, has decided to break away from the ANC. The SABC has continued to support these dissidents, as it had done in its support of this project in the run to the ANC’s Polokwane Conference. This support has dangerously included active and protagonist participation of some of the board members, senior executives and journalists from the SABC in the structures formed by the ANC dissidents.  While South Africa’s constitution protects the rights of individuals to have freedom of association irrespective of their station in life, it is patently wrong for SABC board members and some of its functionaries to actively align themselves in a party political manner, including the abuse of the resources of the public broadcaster to pursue these narrow, factionalist and party political interests.

Thirdly, in its attempts to achieve its factionalist goals, the current SABC board has stumbled from one disaster to another, mainly represented by its endless squander of public money in pursuance of its narrow objectives, including the much unnecessary litigation.

Fourthly, and most dangerously, most of the board members have themselves become parasitic on the resources and remuneration they get from the SABC, to such an extent that for some of these board members, serving on the board has become a means of personal accumulation and dependence.

What is to be done?

In the interests of the transformation of the SABC and promoting public broadcasting in our country, the SACP fully supports Broadcasting Amendment Bill to be passed by parliament this week, allowing for parliament to dissolve the SABC board. And, according to our view, as soon as this legislation is passed the current SABC board must be dissolved and be reconstituted in line with the vision of a public broadcaster truly serving the interests of the South African public, especially the overwhelming majority of the workers and poor of our country.

In constituting the new SABC board parliament has to ensure that it gets rid of all those who use their positions as opportunities for ‘rent-seeking’, using their positions to acquire  tenders and seeing them as employment opportunities and primary sources of their income. The SABC requires a board made up of representatives able to rise above dependency on the emoluments they derive from these positions if they are to perform their duties diligently and in public interest. For these reasons government needs to revisit the model of remuneration for those serving on boards of public institutions whose mandate is public service rather than private personal accumulation. Paying both for ‘retainers’ and ‘per meeting’  remuneration is indeed subject to abuse and is a basis for seriously corrupt practices.

In short, creation of spaces for parasitic dependence on board emoluments severely compromises the goals of public and state owned enterprises.

The SACP also emphatically rejects the notion that public representatives, duly elected through an inclusive democratic process, are not capable of carrying out their duties to select and appoint members to serve on boards of state owned and public institutions. Such a notion is cynical in the extreme and is basically aimed at undermining public confidence in our democracy.

The SACP shall continue to mobilize the workers and the poor to ensure that public institutions do indeed serve that public, rather than narrow and personal interests for private accumulation.

In the interests of representivity, public service and public broadcasting, the SACP reiterates its call for the immediate dissolution and reconstitution of the current SABC board!