How the new SABC board was chosen

How parliament chose its candidates for the SABC board – and the arm wrestling that went on behind the scenes – tells us a lot about power in this society, and how it is exercised.

Most of the opposition parties refrained from making nominations. “It is for the country to do, not us,” a COPE member said to me. But the ANC had spokesperson Jessie Duarte make some nominations from Luthuli House – and those candidates were dead certs to make the final list. Also there were SACP and Cosatu nominations, though these were done in conjunction with other civil society organisations, like the SOS (Save our SABC) Coalition.

The shortlist of 30 was divided up by agreement: the opposition parties were given 10 spaces, and the ANC filled 20. When it was completed the ANC realised it had left out a strong candidate – Feleng Sekha – and made her number 31. The opposition lost two of its candidates when they dropped out after the list was in.

After the interviews, when it came down to the final list, the opposition apparently suggested the same process: they would put forward four names and the ANC eight – to make up the total board of 12. It was agreed to go this route, and it seemed possible that there could be a board everyone would vote in favour of.

The opposition put their heads together and came up with their list of about five names. But they wanted to see the ANC list first so that they did not use up their names on candidates they favoured who the ANC was going to nominate anyway.

When they saw the list, they realised there were seven candidates on the ANC’s list of 12 that they felt they could support. it seemed possible, they thought, that the parties could reach consensus on the full list. But before they could finalise their four, the ANC came out of caucus on Thursday morning and said they were voting in their list of 12 and ditching their agreement to give four places to other parties, according to members of the opposition.

The IFP asked for only one thing: that their veteran former-MP and former communications spokesperson Suzanne Vos get on the board. The ANC gave them this, and in turn the IFP was the only opposition party to vote for all ANC nominations.

It seems that Vos was their 30 pieces of silver. For her, they were prepared to forsake all questions about other candidates.

It is a pity that there was not a serious attempt to reach consensus, as this would be a great start for a new board and it would have maximised their credibility and authority. It seems that attempts to do this broke down in the ANC caucus.

In assessing this new board, there are three things one has to consider. First is how they were chosen. Last time around, the committee allowed interference in the process, and undermined the board’s credibility from day one.

This time, the party caucus ruled. It is not surprising that they could not make four places for opposition nominees. Can you imagine trying to get a caucus of hundreds of MPs to agree to remove four names from the list of 12? Every candidate would have some special interest insisting they were there.

It would have been ideal to achieve consensus, and know there was widespread support for the board as a whole. That would ensure there was no one on it whose credibility and credentials were being questioned.

The second important thing is obviously the list of names itself. Despite the flawed process, the list contains a good range of names, skills and experience. There are journalists, engineers, labour representatives and experienced business people among them. They appear relatively representative of the country.

There are a few surprise omissions. David Lewis was much respected in his previous role as head of the Competitions Tribunal, and is an experienced board member who has shown a commitment to public service. Isaac Shongwe, a widely respected businessman with media experience, did not even make the shortlist for some strange reason.

Nevertheless, there is reasonable hope that this board can give the SABC a fresh start.

The third critical factor is the choice of chair. It is the pivotal position and demands strong leadership, boardroom experience, gravitas, skill and a sense of public service. This is the person who will have to keep at bay those who would pressurise the SABC in pursuit of their own sectoral interests, be they from government or the private sector. This is the person who will have to prevent board members from interfering in day-to-day running of the institution, as some previous board members did. This is the person who will have to project a pubic service vision and instill a new ethic and culture in a troubled organisation. This is the person who will have to lead an important debate about funding models.

It is entirely the president’s prerogative to select the chair from the list of 12 board members before him. There are certainly some good candidates on the list, such as Ben Ngubane or Felleng Sekha.

May the president exercise his wisdom with thought and care. And then they can all get down to the urgent work at hand.

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