Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has come under strong criticism for describing the SABC as the implementing tool of the Communications Department. This is contained in the letter he wrote to the department saying that National Treasury could not back the R3.2 billion guarantee it was asking for on the behalf of the public broadcaster.

The letter is dated June the 25th. This is a week before Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams appeared before Parliament’s Portfolio Committee, and yet she made no mention of the letter.

William Bird, Director of Media Monitoring Africa, has described Mboweni’s assertion as extremely dangerous.

“It’s a fundamental and deeply anti-democratic, ludicrous and offensive statement frankly, to suggest that, that’s the role of the SABC. Now when you’ve got some of the most senior figures in government in letter allegedly making those kinds of deeply at odds democratic theory statements. The chances of the SABC being able to bring the public with it are radically reduced,” says Bird.

Continuous engagement with SABC

Professor Anton Harber from Wits University says both Finance Minister and Communications Minister should continue engaging with the SABC in order to find a solution on the way forward.

Harber says part of the reason for keeping the SABC in a dire financial situation could be to exert political influence over it. He adds that in order to protect the independence of the SABC as well as preserve the nation’s democratic right to be informed, government has to clearly understand the SABC’s mandate.

“I think  if there are issues with the SABC’s turnaround strategy there appears to be a strong good board there that is being open about its plans the minister should be saying clearly what he wants to see differently and how that can be addressed quickly. I think there’s always attempts to pull back on the independence of the SABC to try and get greater political control and influence over the SABC. The minister has to get right what the function and the role of the SABC is. The board has to be absolutely firm and strong in protecting their right and to make sure they’re serving the public interest,” Harber explains.

Misleading Parliament

The African Christian Democratic Party’s member of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications Steve Swart alleges that Ndabeni-Abrahams misled Parliament on the contents of the letter she received from Mboweni on the SABC issue.

“Why the Minister of Communications did not disclose this fact to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee last week, when she appeared before it. She would have known that the guarantee had been refused by the Minister of she should have disclosed that as well to the Portfolio Committee,” says Swart.

The Democratic Alliance says Mboweni does not understand the SABC’s constitutional role. The party’s member of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications Phumzile van Damme says the SABC is independent.

“Can Minister Mboweni read about the mandate of the SABC, and that the SABC is independent and while the Minister can give input, the ultimate authority lies with the board,” explains van Damme.

On the other hand, Bird has commended the SABC for the improvements it has made in the midst of financial constraints.

“Six out of the ten top performing media in our elections monitoring were from the SABC. That’s an incredible achievement in such as short space of time. We’ve seen the board being open and committed. Show me any another public funded entity that has given that amount of detail on their turnaround strategy to Parliament,” says Bird.