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Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

For roughly four years, the SABC has been a model state-owned enterprise, asserting its independence and taking tough decisions to restore financial stability.

Under board chair Bongumusa Makhathini and Group CEO Madoda Mxakwe, the broadcaster has gone a long way to repair the damage done during the Zuma era.

Current editor-in-chief Phathiswa Magopeni has ensured the news offering has regained credibility and audience. It may not be the most exciting news and current affairs mix, but it no longer sounds like the voice of Luthuli House.

From presenting one of the worst cases of state-owned enterprise (SOE) rot, the organisation has come a long way in a short time towards getting itself back into reasonable shape. It passed an excellent new editorial code, getting rid of historical oddities such as combining the group CEO and editor-in-chief roles and confirming public service as its core value.

The decision a few years ago to retrench many staffers was a painful one, but the board argued it was unavoidable if the SABC was to return to financial health. One can disagree, but what is clear is that the executives came under enormous political pressure to the extent that key people had to have security protection, and they stood up to it.

SABC news had its stumbles, such as when the DA had to go to court to force it to cover their conference properly. And when journalist Samkele Maseko pleaded on live TV for the ANC to intervene over the retrenchments. But they got over these mishaps.

So why now is Magopeni accusing the group CEO and board chair of interfering and trying to drive her out? Why does it feel like a sudden return to a painful time?

First, Magopeni was charged late in 2021 with negligence when a current affairs programme was aired in contravention of an interdict. Ignoring a court order is a serious problem, but Magopeni questioned why she was being targeted for an error she argued was not her responsibility.

She laid a formal counter-complaint that the chair and group CEO were trying to push her out because she had rebuffed their attempt to interfere with editorial. A disciplinary hearing last week recommended that she be reprimanded.

Magopeni’s complaint grew out of an incident on the eve of the local government election, when the presidency contacted the group CEO saying President Cyril Ramaphosa wanted to give an interview, but do it at the Limpopo studio of a non-SABC station. Instead of referring him to Magopeni, the group CEO and board chair acted as intermediaries, a situation that inevitably led to a confusion of roles and responsibilities.

Magopeni objected, rightly, to doing it at a rival station’s premises, and then refused the interview altogether because the presidency had not followed protocol. Since Magopeni and others had been complaining for months that Ramaphosa had not made himself available for media interviews, it was a surprise that she could not find a way to make it happen.

The issue will be fully canvassed in an SABC board inquiry, and I don’t want to anticipate the outcome. But it seems there is confusion in the SABC about what editorial independence means, and how to handle embarrassing situations like this.

Hanging over this is the fact that ANC leaders Jessie Duarte and Fikile Mbalula have publicly blamed the SABC, and Magopeni personally, for their recent election failings. They made it clear they expect the SABC to be more helpful to them, and have scant regard for the public broadcaster’s need to serve the public rather than any political party.

Magopeni believes it is this ANC push for control that led to the chair and group CEO trying to push her out. Again, this is something that needs to be clarified at the board inquiry. My organisation, the Campaign for Free Expression, and national editors’ body Sanef, are pushing for this inquiry to be open to the media so we can all see if there is substance to it. A lot is at stake.

It is clear, though, that there are ominous warning signals over SABC independence. The ANC, or perhaps elements in the ANC, fearing the loss of power, are threatening the broadcaster’s operation. Once the ANC weighs in on SOE internal matters, it spreads a poison in the organisation that leads to conflict, fractiousness and, when not kept in check, dereliction.

With a number of the current board members’ terms running out later in 2022, the ANC’s notorious deployment committee may push hard to gain ascendancy again to ensure more favourable coverage in the next elections.

The SABC’s independence is fragile, as is our democracy. We are going to have to be vigilant to preserve it.

• Harber is executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Caxton professor of journalism at Wits University.

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