I have started 2017 with hope because of the calibre of people in South Africa who, at the end of last year (and at great personal and professional risk), stood up and shared what is wrong with our public broadcaster, the SABC.
During the parliamentary ad hoc committee’s SABC inquiry, I was riveted to the accounts from the courageous, committed SABC 8, including the economics editor, Thandeka Gqubule, who inspired me with her commitment to do the right thing and expose what was happening inside the organisation.
Gqubule, who has a Master’s degree in journalism from the Columbia School of Journalism in New York, said she could no longer live with herself if she continued to comply with “the reign of terror in the newsrooms wrought on us by Mr Hlaudi Motsoeneng and his cohorts”.
In December 2016, she told the committee that, as a journalist and as a former lecturer of journalism at Rhodes University and Monash, she had always taught and insisted on journalism ethics. She explained that many of her former students are now working at the SABC, including fellow SABC 8 member Krivani Pillay, a senior producer at the SABC.
“We teach journalists to have ethics. I could not longer live with myself,” said Gqubule.
She stood up—as did Krivani Pillay and the rest of the group—and eloquently gave their accounts. Pillay explained she could no longer accept the unsound editorial decisions taken within the SABC and its newsrooms.
She explained that all eight had chosen to stand up because the cost of not defending an independent public broadcaster would be insurmountable, none of them would be able to practise journalism with integrity, and they would be complicit in depriving more than 20 million South Africans—who solely rely on the SABC—their right to balanced, factual information.
I cannot adequately describe how much these journalists inspired me as a lecturer in leadership. These foot soldiers demonstrated that they are the true leaders of the SABC—they are more committed to the wellbeing of the organisation than the so-called leaders of the organisation sitting on the Board.
The 8 are a breath of fresh air and the SABC has them to thank for showing a different side of the organisation to the nation. This is the calibre of people who can make our public broadcaster great and worth watching, irrespective of whether we have access to private sources of news.
The entire ad hoc committee conducting the SABC inquiry has also impressed me. Irrespective of their political affiliations, these parliamentary foot soldiers demonstrated solidarity and intelligent leadership in their conducting of the cross-examinations for the inquiry.
The whole process has emphasised how an inquiry should be held and it has exposed what happens when people do not act in the best interests of the organisation and are, instead, driven by their own agendas. You land up with people who are able to entrench themselves to the degree that they act with impunity for far too long; this to the severe detriment of the organisation, its staff members and the citizens of South Africa.
The whole process has also exposed what happens when you land up with people sitting on governing bodies who do not apply independence of thought, as emphasised in the King IV code of corporate governance. It defines independence as the exercise of objective, unfettered judgement. This requires the absence of interest, position, association or relationship which, when judged from the perspective of a reasonable and informed third party, may lead to bias in decision-making.
King IV also points out the importance of having a balanced Board, and explains that balance can only be created ‘if the composition of the Board accounts for a balance of required skills, experience, diversity, independence and knowledge of the company or organisation. All directors, including the independent directors, should have a comprehensive understanding of the industry within and the business of the companies that they serve’.
I would take this a step further and suggest that if you are going to sit on a Board, then it should be compulsory that you become a Chartered Director and go through the process that would ensure you are fully aware of what your role and responsibilities are on the Board. You should also be qualified and equipped to carry out this level of responsibility to a high level and to the best of your ability.
As a country, we also need to question how many Boards the same person may sit on and still be effective.
I would therefore hope that, in the case of the SABC (where a completely shameful abuse of this public organisation has been allowed to go on for far too long), that strict ethical, independent and professional criteria are applied going forward, and that when new people are appointed to the SABC’s Board (as with any other Board), that they have the qualifications, ethical mindset, integrity and independence required for good corporate governance. This is the only way to regain credibility, rebuild trust and to grow the SABC into a vibrant, quality public broadcaster where journalists of the calibre of the SABC 8 are proud to work.