Change is painful, but sometimes inevitable
We do not want to rekindle apartheid’s bitter memories, but the truth must be told that before the dawn of democracy, the apartheid regime was characterised by a culture of secrecy, disinformation and restrictions on press freedom. Those who were there during the late 1980s will remember that news at the SABC was permeated with racial stereotypes, black employees subject to whipping as a disciplinary procedure, separate training classes from their white colleagues, and always being given older machines to work with.
Today, government is no longer hiding behind media restrictions and is fully accountable to the public. Now, let’s allow the truth about the Broadcasting Amendment Bill to breathe. It is incorrect to portray me as someone who is trying to put the SABC in the “intensive care unit” of the ruling ANC. Our people will never rebel against their government, because they know that the central pillar to making the free and open flow of communication a reality is our public broadcaster.
We want to put it on record that our government recognises the central role the SABC plays in society. We are committed to the development of a sustainable and relevant public broadcaster that is accountable to both Parliament and the public, meaning that all the headlines that seek to suggest that I want to put the SABC under the total control of the ANC are incorrect and misleading.
As South Africans, it is important for us to understand that the proposed amendments to the Broadcasting Act that we have tabled as government are in line with our vision of ensuring universal access to broadcasting services in South Africa.
The proposed changes will strengthen the SABC and allow it to better fulfil its public broadcasting service mandate.
Contrary to what others are saying, government is convinced this change will ensure a more robust, relevant and sustainable SABC. The proposed changes are systematic in nature and take into account all aspects related to the public broadcaster.
In the past decade, the SABC has had to navigate several challenges and there were times when boardroom issues took centre stage. Unfortunately, those challenges sometimes hindered the ability of the SABC to discharge its public broadcasting service mandate.
We are also cognisant that the SABC operates in a fastchanging landscape where innovation and change are the order of the day. It is therefore important that the SABC and its leadership are in a position to move with the changing times if they are to stay relevant.
Companies function optimally when the board and the leadership of the company work independently, yet in harmony. In such cases, the board provides strategic direction that allows the leadership to focus on operational issues.
The proposed amendment to the Broadcasting Act will allow government to develop and implement a stable corporate governance model, which ensures the long-term stability and sustainability of the SABC.
This process will allow for introspection on the size, selection process and tenure of future boards and is a vital element in ensuring that the SABC is fit for purpose in the unfolding media landscape.
One of the proposed changes is to reduce the number of nonexecutive board members from 12 to nine. The rationale for this is to strengthen the board and streamline its operation.
A large board is expensive to maintain and we want to avoid situations where board members are lobbied by competing outside interest groups.
The proposed changes in the bill also seek to ensure that the SABC board is composed of persons with the range of skills and expertise required to ensure optimal operational efficiency so that the SABC is not left behind in the digital era. They will allow the board to make strategic decisions about its operations.
Government would like to see a situation where the process of appointing and removing nonexecutive board members is expedited without compromising the participation of the general public in the process.
To achieve this, the bill proposes that a nominations committee be formed to select future boards. This committee will screen and interview prospective board members and recommend the names of persons to be appointed as nonexecutive members of the board.
The rationale behind this proposed change is to expeditiously appoint the members of the board and ensure that the best possible candidates serve on future boards. This is in line with international best practice for public broadcasting.
To ensure the integrity and independence of the nominations committee, its chairperson will be a retired judge, who will be appointed in consultation with the justice minister.
It is important to note that the power to appoint and remove board members still remains with the president, who will use his or her discretion in appointing a chairperson and deputy chairperson. The president will continue to appoint candidates from persons recommended by the minister of communications following recommendations by the nominations committee.
Government is confident that the checks and balances embedded in the proposed process will allow for the appointment of candidates who are best placed to move South Africa forward.
An appointment process for nonexecutive directors for public broadcasting corporations, driven by the executive, is a hallmark of legislation in Canada, the UK and Australia.
The bill also proposes that one-third of the current board be retained for a period not exceeding 10 years. This will ensure that the institutional memory of the board is not eroded, as well as provide stability within the SABC.
In March this year, Cabinet approved the final amendments to the Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy, which paved the way for the implementation of digital migration. Cabinet further approved that government should provide free set-top boxes to the 5 million poor TV-owning households.
This shift is a reflection of government’s commitment to ensure that digital migration happens in the shortest time possible.
The migration will release valuable spectrum that will allow for more channels and more content to be broadcast in the same bandwidth as is currently used by one analogue channel.
The availability of more TV channels will lead to more demand for local content, which will translate into growth for the local content industry. This will also spur industry growth and lead to job creation.
The move provides us with an opportunity to realise our vision of building a people-centred, inclusive information society.
It is therefore clear that the landscape is changing and, consequently, the SABC and the regulatory environment must change as well. Change is often a painful process. Nevertheless, it is sometimes inevitable.
Muthambi is the minister of communications