Public Participation and Transparency Essential in Selecting New SABC Board

Wednesday, 29 July, 2009 - 11:55

Maximum public participation and transparency is a process of educating people to take ownership of an institution they nominally own. Not to broaden participation this time round after the fiasco of the board appointed by former President Mbeki, is simply to risk a repeat of that process and the controversy now dogging the appointment of the interim board

The Portfolio Committee on Communications of parliament has, through adverts in a few expensive newspapers targeted at affluent readers, called for nominations for a new board of the public broadcaster the SABC. The closing date for nominations of board members is now 14 August (it was originally 31 July 2009).

The advertising strategy is highly unlikely to enable maximum participation in nominations and the closing date (although extended now) was certainly initially too close. It did not give enough time for well considered nominations and therefore it was not guaranteed of yielding the best pool for interviews.

A better communication strategy is necessary if the process is to produce a board made of people who are motivated by respect for freedom of expression and the media and meeting to the fullest extent possible the information, education, entertainment and communication needs of our society.

Notwithstanding these potentially fatal problems, the best and legitimate process to select an SABC board is through the parliamentary driven process and not an elite group of selected individuals even if they have an illustrious journalism and business background. Parliamentarians are the elected representatives of the people. In this country our elections are free and fair and its outcomes are representative of the people’s choices.

Further politics cannot and should not be taken out of the governance of the public media. The issue though is what kind of politics our elected representative should practice around public media.

Elected politicians should practice a form of politics around public media that allows for maximum public participation and transparency in selecting a board. Maximum public participation and transparency will engender a sense of ownership among South Africans that is lacking now. It will also stop the ill-considered clamour by some that the SABC be privatised as a solution to its governance and management

With regard to the SABC, which is a public broadcaster, it is expected and must be the practice that parliament enables the fullest participation by the public, in the process of selecting a board, that is broadly representative of our society. Parliament must avoid in anything that it does, a process that only enables the participation of elites in politics, business, and even those who have become elites in civil society organisations including labour. A process that privileges the participation of elites is anti-democratic, patriarchal and patronising.

Maximum public participation and transparency is a process of educating people to take ownership of an institution they nominally own. Not to broaden participation this time round after the fiasco of the board appointed by former President Mbeki, is simply to risk a repeat of that process and the controversy now dogging the appointment of the interim board. It is also to avoid manipulation of the process. Such manipulation leads to the appointment of a board that is not representative and does not have the legitimacy to govern the public broadcaster.

Ensuring maximum public participation and transparency in this process is consistent with the spirit of the ANC’s Polokwane congress which signaled a return to enabling the large majority of people to exercise power and influence in choices and the rejection of elite centred and driven decision making processes. Elite decision-making might on the face of it appear to be technically sound, but its outcomes are often not only anti-democratic but also, as the SABC board saga has shown, technically and substantively disastrous for an institution and a society. As everyone can see we now face the imminent implosion of the SABC.

The best way to enable maximum participation in the nomination process, which is the first stage, is a communication strategy for nominations for board members that reaches the broadest possible number of South Africans. Such a communication strategy should include advertising in all of the mass media outlets including community radio stations and newspapers.

It should not, as has happened recently include only once off advertisements in a few expensive newspapers targeted at the elite in urban suburban areas mostly in Gauteng or similar geographic areas nationally. Worse still even in those newspapers the Mail & Guardian, The Star, The Sunday Times and Rapport the advert is small and hidden in inside pages or sections that even the most discerning reader is likely to miss.

The Portfolio Committee on Communications should ensure that larger prominently placed advertisements are featured in more newspapers across the nation, on all the SABC’s channels as public service announcements and in the commercial television and radio stations before the deadline of 14 August 2009. On the SABC stations, which reach almost all South Africans in all the 11 national languages, the announcements should run before popular programmes.

Some will claim that such a communication strategy is expensive and in affordable but this is a lame and self-serving claim.

Choosing an SABC board is one of the most important things that we as a society need to do given its critical importance as a public broadcaster and the only genuine means for mass communication that reaches everyone. It is in my view nearly as important as the general elections and choosing judges of the Constitutional Court. The cost therefore can never be too much!

Second, it is not as expensive as making the wrong decision because we did not canvass for nominees as broadly as possible and choose the best 12 people who taken as whole, are not only representative of South Africa, but have the required experience, skills and competence sets to run an institutionally autonomous genuine public broadcaster, which enjoys, editorial and programming independence, from all vested and powerful interests and not just the ANC.

Third, maximum public participation and transparency are democracy in action and there can be no price to democracy. Fourth, using SABC channels will reduce the costs while adding public value.

Once the nominations have been made it will be very important to ensure that the process of selection is totally transparent. The portfolio committee must enable and indeed actively encourage the media including the SABC to cover the interviews live or record for later broadcast and publish the CVs of all the nominees and allow for comment and objections.

A transparent process will prevent manipulation and the insertion of names of people who were not on the committee’s list to the President as appears to have when the recently dissolved board was appointed at the end of 2007.

Finally civil society organisations and citizens should use their own means to publicise the call for nominations and to participate in nominating people for the board, who will not only represent their interests but ensure that the public broadcaster is well governed, properly managed and meets its mandate in all respects.

Professor Tawana Kupe is Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Wits University, a Media Studies academic and a member of the Save Our SABC Coalition in his personal capacity

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