By Gavin Davis
Last year, during the Ellen Tshabalala scandal, the Communications Portfolio Committee showed that this Parliament could hold people to account despite their links to powerful politicians. We can all be proud of this achievement.
Our task now, is to hold the Minister to account for her performance over the last year. And, if we are honest, we will all agree that her performance has been a massive disappointment.
I am sure that nobody is more disappointed in the Minister’s performance than the President. He wanted a new propaganda ministry to clean up his government’s image, but all he got was more controversy.
Just look at what’s happened in the year since this ministry was created:
We’ve had an SABC Board Chairperson resign because she was caught lying about her qualifications. But this was only after 6 damaging months of postponed hearings, court cases and other delaying tactics.
We’ve had an SABC Chief Operations Officer who has been shielded and promoted when the Public Protector said he should have been fired.
We have a Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) that is abused to promote the majority party, including the channeling of public money into the coffers of a government-friendly newspaper owned by the President’s friends.
And then, in a few weeks on 17 June, we face humiliation on a global scale. Because, on that day, we will miss the International Telecommunications Union deadline to switch over from analogue to digital television. If Minister Muthambi had not spent the last year meddling with the Digital Migration Policy, and waging an obsessive turf war to control the process, it is unlikely that we would be in the embarrassing position we now find ourselves in.
Most serious of all, is that the Minister willfully misunderstands her role in relation to the SABC. She believes that the SABC is a state-owned company instead of an independent public broadcaster. She wants to take us back to the apartheid era when the SABC was a tool in the hands of politicians, instead of a resource belonging to the people of this country.
This is why the Minister thinks there is nothing wrong with unilaterally seizing the powers of the SABC Board, even though this is in clear contravention of the Broadcasting Act.
And it is why the Minister thinks it is okay to send independent SABC Board Members threatening letters, even when she has no power in law to appoint or remove them.
In her Budget Speech last year, Minister Muthambi said that stabilising the SABC was at the very top of her agenda.
However, since then, no less than three SABC Board Members have resigned, while three others have been forcibly and illegally removed. As a result, the SABC Board does not have a Chairperson, or a quorum to legally constitute meetings.
Last year, the Minister also promised that a new Chief Executive Officer would be in place by the end of September. Nine months have passed and the post is still vacant.
No wonder the SABC is in crisis, the scale of which is only starting to become clear.
Financial documents recently brought to light by the Sunday Times newspaper show that the SABC faces a projected loss of R501-million for the financial year just ended on March 31. This loss is projected to double to R1 billion in the next financial year.
So the SABC is not on “a sound financial footing”, as Minister Muthambi said in Parliament a few weeks ago. On the contrary, the SABC is facing financial ruin.
We need to fix our public broadcaster as a matter of priority. But the only way to do that is to ensure that there is less political interference in the SABC, not more.
This is why it is crucial that the Speaker’s Office releases the legal opinion on the removal of Board Members Hope Zinde, Rachel Kalidass and Ronnie Lubisi. Once we have this legal opinion, the Portfolio Committee can deal with this matter as we are mandated to do in terms of the Broadcasting Act.
It is imperative that the Portfolio Committee works together to find the most qualified and independently minded candidates to take up positions on the Board. And then they need to be left alone to do their jobs in the interests of the public we serve.
These steps will go some way to get the SABC back on track, but they won’t fix all that is wrong in the Communications Department. Because, the truth is, this Department should never have been created in the first place.
We live in the age of convergence – where traditional broadcasting is rapidly merging with new digital telecommunication technology. This is why it never made sense to create separate Communications and Telecommunications Departments.
As a result of the split, we have unnecessary duplication, inherent contradictions and overall lack of policy coherence. Let me give one important example of this.
On the 14 November 2014, the Telecommunications Minister gazetted the National Integrated ICT Policy Discussion Paper for public comment. An entire chapter of it is devoted to broadcasting, including regulation, language diversity, the funding and mandate of the SABC, and media diversity and development.
Yet two days before, no doubt in anticipation of the release of the ICT Discussion Paper, Minister Muthambi announced that she would be doing her own Broadcasting Policy Review — on precisely the same topics covered in the ICT Discussion Paper. What a waste of time, energy and resources.
In his drive to create a propaganda machine, the President has created a mess. And the great irony is that he never got the propaganda machine he wanted. Because no ministry this dysfunctional could ever be referred to as a ‘machine’.
So I would like to offer the President a reprieve. If he quietly scraps the new Communications ministry and goes back to the old converged Department, we will never mention this failed experiment again.
Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications. This is an edited version of a speech delivered in the Communications Budget Vote Debate.