After months of delay, eight board vacancies at the South African Broadcasting Corporation could finally be filled.  

Following a spate of resignations in late 2018, the embattled public broadcaster was left with only 4 non-executives, leaving the board inquorate and unable to make legally binding decisions. Now it looks as if these positions could be filled in a matter of weeks.

Having initially advertised the vacancies in November 2018, the Parliamentary Communications Committee received 223 nominations by the closing date of 31 December. It had been reported that a mid-January meeting of the committee would narrow the potential candidates, with an aim for final approval by the National Assembly on the 19 February.

This, however, did not take place, with the National Assembly receiving no candidate CVs or applications by 19 February.

A threat to independence

The wait has caused significant concern for the broadcaster’s ability to provide independent and balanced coverage in the build-up to South Africa’s general election in May – a fundamental role for any public broadcaster. A functioning board is responsible for managing the affairs of the SABC, helping to ensure that these are not in the interest of the state.

Last week, NGOs Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and the Support Public Broadcasting Coalition – SOS directed lawyers to write to South Africa’s National Assembly and Presidency calling for a timetable as to when the appointment process would be completed. Vitally, they called for vacancies to be filled by the time Parliament rises on 20 March and threatened action against the ruling party for not enabling a properly functioning and independent public broadcaster ahead of the polls.

“The SABC will only have such independence if there are entrenched mechanisms to ensure that it provides accurate, neutral and pluralistic content. Our clients submit that the board is one of these mechanisms”, the letter read.

 The independence of SABC is enshrined under South Africa’s Broadcasting Act and Constitution. This was reinforced in October 2017 by the country’s High Court.

March deadline

On Friday 22 February, committee chair Hlengiwe Mkhize released a statement confirming that it planned to shortlist 24 candidates on 26 February and publish their CVs to Parliament’s website for public comment. They would then submit their final report to the National Assembly on 13 March.

The delay, the committee told City Press,was due to there being a lack of female applicants.

This latest saga to hit the broadcaster comes as it attempts to recover from a number of crises, including debts of up to 700million Rand ($53million) due to mismanagement. This nearly resulted in the loss of 981 permanent staff and 1200 freelancers, a process that was withdrawn on 31 January.

It is essential that SABC has a full and functioning board well ahead of South Africa’s elections in May. An effective, independent and impartial public broadcaster is fundamental to underpinning an informed democracy and ensuring that power is held to account.

The Public Media Alliance will continue to observe the situation facing SABC and offers its support where necessary.

Header Image: SABC Western Cape. Credit: Richard Tanswell/Creative Commons