Change is painful, but some­times in­evitable

CityPress - - Voices - Faith Muthambi voices@city­press.co.za

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

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