The Broadcasting Act, which spells out the appointment procedure in section 13, requires a transparent and open process for the appointment of Board Members. This involves a concerted application of the minds of the Committee, to ensure that the candidates meet the legislative requirements; the vetting of the successful candidates; the presentation of the names to the National Assembly; and finally, the appointment by the President on the recommendation of the National Assembly. This process is and has always been a lengthy one, to allow for due diligence to be exercised. In the past, this process has taken well over three months.
It is clear that what appears to be a rushed process, is an attempt to fill the posts before Parliament rises on 20 March 2019, to enable the Broadcaster to effectively and efficiently carry out its duties. The Committee has since completed the interview process and submitted eight names to the National Assembly for consideration. Among the selected candidates are veteran journalist Mary Papayya, Advocate Motshedi Benjamin Lekalakala, Dr Marcia Socikwa and Professor Sathasivan Cooper.
Some Committee members suggested deferring appointments to after the May 2019 national elections, because anything done before would amount to a rushed process. The alternative view was that any further delay in appointment would further weaken the struggling State-owned enterprise (SOE). Over the two-day interview process, there was a general air of disappointment with the calibre of candidates, indicating the failure of the SABC to attract more credible nominees. The credibility of the SABC has been steadily declining and the vacant seats lend credence to the opinion that the Broadcaster needs an institutional overhaul. The apparent political interference, the departure of a slew of experienced and committed individuals, as well as millions of rand of debt, are part of the problem.
The absence of a Board is but one of the SABC’s most imminent worries. The Broadcaster indicated last year that it was operating on its reserves and that without a hefty cash injection, it would not be financially viable after March 2019. At the time, a R3 billion bailout was requested. The Finance Minister, in his Budget Speech earlier this year, stated that the SABC needs almost R7 billion to address its financial woes. It has been unable to pay service providers and freelancers, commission content, and fulfil other contracts. Furthermore, the situation has threatened the ability of the SABC to pay its wage bill, which at the moment, demands the payment of at least 3 000 salaries. With its annual financial loss standing at R568 million (over R280 million more than was initially projected), the SABC’s predicted figures show factual insolvency by the end of March 2019. To add to the quagmire, in February the SABC was fined R32 million by the Competition Tribunal for having colluded on advertising rates – further haemorrhaging money it does not actually have.
The Minister of Communications, Telecommunications and Postal Services, Stella Ndabeni- Abrahams, said this week that National Treasury has agreed to provide interim funding (the amount has yet to be confirmed) to allow the SABC to settle some of its debt, as well as pay salaries for the coming months. This sum is not the requested R3 billion, nor is it the required R6.8 billion. Questions about what happens when this lifeboat runs out, must be asked.
The SABC is only one of the many SOEs being supported by National Treasury, eating away at funds that could be redirected to serve a plethora of government projects to benefit the South African public. The more Treasury allocates towards bail-outs, the less of the pie there is to distribute to essential areas and national projects. This is one reason for the SABC’s desperate need for capable and credible leadership. The appointment process, however, cannot be tarnished by expedience and a lack of oversight, regardless of the urgency of the situation.
Furthermore, it is important that the SABC remains financially viable, particularly during this election season. For many in South Africa, SABC channels are the only source of information about public matters. For them, the SABC is the last port of call for access to freedom of expression – and their constitutionally-protected access to the press and media.
With the list of recommended candidates now tabled before Parliament, one can only trust that despite the limited time period during which the Committee completed the process, no short-cuts were taken. The SABC cannot be without leadership again as a result of lack of oversight. The successful candidates will face the mammoth task of attempting to recapitalise the Broadcaster, as well as restoring much-needed credibility.
By Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights
15 March 2019