Edward Tsumele

Edward Tsumele

She speaks softly. Her voice sounds harmless. She also exudes the kind of warmth often extended by mothers to their children. She greets you as if you have known each other for years. She appears calm, controlled and confident.

Perched on the 28th floor of the mammoth Auckland Park building of the SABC, Kanyisiwe Mkhonza's office gives new meaning to "Dithering Heights".

The positioning of her office might be symbolic, but it metaphorically represents reality.

Mkhonza occupies the highest office of the controversy-prone public broadcaster, as the newly-installed chairman of the SABC board.

Because of her calmness and the composure with which she carries herself, one would be forgiven for thinking that her position is one of the safest of all those in public institutions.

During the interview, she keeps the composure and the calmness, even as she answers some of the most sensitive questions that continuously besiege this power keg that the SABC has become in recent years.

One cannot help but feel that this ease is uneasy as it seems to represent a kind of quietness just before the storm.

Mkhonza gave this rare interview to Sowetan slightly more than a month after taking over the helm of this public institution, a contested terrain of opinions by civic society, politicians and the government as well as ordinary people. It's also just a week after the new board of the SABC has held its indaba "just to introduce each other". These are the words of the SABC's new boss.

This interview was also conducted within the context, and against the background, of a plethora of complaints from civil society and the new leadership of the ANC, particularly its youth wing, that somehow President Thabo Mbeki jumped the gun by controversially appointing the board too soon after Polokwane.

Mkhonza's appointment as chairman of the board was particularly questioned. A lot of analysts had expected the president to appoint outspoken lawyer Christine Qunta to the position. Instead, she was appointed as a deputy to Mkhonza, a move which somehow staved off further controversy because Qunta is said to be too close to Mbeki.

But still controversy erupted surrounding the appointment of Mkhonza as some insinuated that Qunta, rather than Mkhonza, would be making policy decisions at the SABC.

Mkhonza expressed shock at this perception, and for the first time during the interview, she appeared to suppress discomfort.

"It is absolutely wrong for people to think that Qunta will be making the decisions and not me. We work as a team well and she respects my decisions. Even in the committee she chairs, she does not make decisions without consulting me. I have the final word on every decision that is made by this board," she said.

She added that when she accepted the nomination, she was prepared for anything. "However, I was surprised by the decision of the president to appoint me chairman of the board, but when it came I accepted it, and I am ready to take on this job.

"I accept that it is not going to be an easy one, for there will be criticism. I am more than ready to face criticism as it is inevitably part of this position.

"When it comes to the issue of the criticism that the president appointed this board controversially too soon after Polokwane, the point is, irrespective of who was going to be chosen president of the ANC, the president of the country would have needed to appoint someone, for he is empowered to do so in terms of the law," she said.

Mkhonza added that the new board is aware of the criticism that is constantly directed at the public broadcaster, including allegations that it is biased against certain politicians in its coverage.

"We are willing to listen to criticism as we know this is a public platform for people to express their views. If anyone has a complaint and accuses us on a particular issue, we will look at facts and on the basis of the facts, make a decision. But when it comes to, for example, how the SABC covers provincial issues such as the ANC succession race, the SABC is not the only media that took a particular angle," Mkhonza said.

"Even newspapers took the same angle, therefore you cannot single out the SABC and say it has a particular bias."

She confirmed that the new board will revisit some of the contested areas of ideas at Auckland Park.

These include the question of the alleged banning of certain commentators and the subsequent appointment of a commission of inquiry chaired by media veteran Zwelakhe Sisulu last year.

The commission made a report concerning the highly-explosive saga, and to date the SABC has not made its recommendations public.

"We are going to revisit those issues because they keep on coming back, and we have to deal with them."

Mkhonza said that the SABC board is constituting committees to look at a number of issues for their first formal meeting.

"The committees will look at broad issues but top priority will be the 2010 Soccer World Cup, planning the digital migration by 2011, engagement with the public and possible competition from new broadcasting players."

After this interview with the new boss of the SABC, I concluded that Mkhonza might be calm and composed in her attitude but detractors will face a tough time from the former chairman of the Media Diversity and Development Agency.