Sometimes it is the smaller things that tell you the most. Sometimes you understand what is happening in this country not by the big national picture, but in the commonplace detail of everyday life. Good governance usually starts with the routine and mundane.
On Monday the SABC, an important state-owned enterprise, will not have had a board of directors at all for three months. This means that, despite all the ANC and presidential commitments to clean up SOE governance, they have allowed there to be no financial oversight and no crucial strategic decisions at a troubled SOE for an extended period. To illustrate the impact of this: the Minister of Communications has set a January 27 deadline for comment on her plan to switch off analogue broadcasting and only the board can interact with the Minister on this issue, which will have major impact on its viability.
The delay started with Parliament, who began two month’s late with their process of calling for nominations, shortlisting, interviewing and selecting candidates. Then the State Security Agency were slow over their security vetting of candidates, though why they would want to look at all 37 shortlisted candidates rather than just the final list is anyone’s guess. All this meant that the outgoing board left office on October 15, but Parliament only finalised its recommendations of 12 names on December 5. The presidency has said that they only received this from the Speaker of Parliament two weeks later, so there are questions as to why the simple forwarding of names in an urgent matter was not done the same day. The Presidency put it aside for the season of the ANC conference and birthday celebrations, effectively putting party above state. But at least he used the time to pledge to continue SOE reform.
Still, it languishes on the President’s desk. He has little discretion on the choice of 12 members, and only gets to choose the chair and vice-chair. So the delay means either he doesn’t consider the public broadcaster important enough to get his urgent attention, or – most likely – there are behind-the-scenes political maneuvers to influence the choice of chair. Maybe the matter is waiting for a cabinet reshuffle. We know that there are those who would like to ensure an ANC-friendly SABC in the run-up to an election in which the governing party is facing its first real challenge. We know that there are many in the ANC who have little respect for the notion of in SOEs. We know that President Cyril Ramaphosa likes to take these things step-by-step, consulting and achieving consensus at every stage.
We also know the SABC management has a tough enough task in getting the organization back to financial stability and editorial respectability. How much tougher is it when a key element of the decision-making structure is absent?
We also know that every SOE is involved in a battle to keep criminal syndicates at bay. How do you do this when you don’t have the oversight of a board of directors? Is it possible that there are those who see opportunity in the lack of oversight for an extended period?
Maybe the idea is that we will all get so desperate for a board, any board, that we will care less about how good or bad it is when the President gets around to finalising it. Certainly, the names put forward by parliament are a mixed bag (at least two of the nominees have raised questions about apparent conflicts of interest).
“The war of ideas,” the ANC said in its recent conference policy documents, “must be fought like a real war”. The war of ideas, it tells us, is the war for ANC hegemony and against “counter-revolution and the ideas of “neo-liberal forces … and world imperialism”. It seems like the ANC’s ideological military is learning from its allies in the Russian military – archaic and ponderous, as opposed to the Ukraine military’s apparent flexibility.
The ANC’s conference resolutions on the SABC also show a Putin-like insulation from reality. The SABC’s development mandate must be funded from the central fiscus, it says, and a household levy should replace television licences. Ain’t gonna happen soon, is all one can say.
Most mystifying is a call for community media to “progress to commercial media”. No explanation is given for this, but it would likelymean the death of community media – the outlets closest to and serving local communities not well served by commercial media.
These resolutions are probably of little importance, as ANC conference resolutions are seldom predictors of what the organisation might actually do.
More telling is the absence of a board.
Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and director of the Campaign for Free Expression.