Who should run the broadcaster?
Sep 11th 2008 | JOHANNESBURG
From The Economist print edition
A row over appointments reflects a continuing struggle for political power
ONCE a mouthpiece for the apartheid regime, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has, for the past few years, been accused of kowtowing to the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Senior staff have been leaving in droves. Last year its head of news, Snuki Zikalala, was accused of blacklisting commentators deemed critical of the government.
In retrospect, this seems to have been little more than a warm-up for the troubles that have rocked the SABC since the ANC elected its new leader, Jacob Zuma, in December. The public broadcaster, the main source of information for millions of South Africans, has been sucked into the ruling party's internecine battles.
The drama started with the appointment of a new SABC board ahead of the ANC leadership election. The process was marred by allegations that the ANC's top brass, then under the control of President Thabo Mbeki, leaned heavily on Parliament, which is mandated to choose the board, to impose several people. Trade unions and civic groups were also unhappy about the fact that the board, dominated by business people, did not include journalists or trade unionists.
Once Mr Mbeki lost his job as the ANC's president to Mr Zuma, open warfare broke out. The new board suspended the SABC's chief executive, Dali Mpofu, arguing that he was exceeding his authority. Critics said this was political retribution, as Mr Mpofu had just suspended Mr Zikalala, considered a staunch supporter of Mr Mbeki. The SABC boss promptly challenged his suspension in court and had it overturned on procedural grounds.
The fight descended into farce when the board suspended Mr Mpofu again. SABC staff joined in, publicly criticising the embattled board. Mr Mpofu is still in court fighting his suspension, but Mr Zikalala has gone back to his job. The well is so poisoned that the recent reassignment of several journalists covering Mr Zuma raised instant suspicions of political interference.
With Mr Mbeki out of the ruling party's top seat, ANC parliamentarians are bent on removing the board they picked less than a year ago. A bill to give Parliament the power to force the president to sack the board has been tabled. The opposition Democratic Alliance says board members could be fired on political whims, which would kill the SABC's fragile independence. The local Freedom of Expression Institute says the rows in the SABC have got so bad that the entire "rotten policy base" on which it operates should be debated and changed.
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