Opinionista Branko Brkic 20 March 2013

The Solution: SABC edition

You’ve got to cruel to be kind. It will take just four steps to dismantle the expensive farce that is the SABC, but those four simple steps will save the broadcaster. And then, to boost viewership and celebrate the injection of efficiency & professionalism, proceed with a big, revitalising step number five ...

At the centre of the latest crisis to occupy South African minds, the SABC sits forlorn, leaderless, lost. Many politicians have found ways to align the solution to the crisis with their political platform. Most critics – from the left, centre and right; from the lunatic fringe to respected analysts – focus on leadership change; some of them go deeper, specifying the business or accountability interventions that must be performed for the SABC to become even a remotely decent news and culture organisation.

The problem is, all of them are probably right, as all of these moves are necessary. But while these might help, eventually, it could be decades before any semblance of reason is established in the chaos manor that is the SABC.

This column is about what really needs to be done.

It would not be pretty and it would not be without fires and explosions, but it needs to be done. Anything else is a half-baked solution.

In the discussion document for the ANC’s 2010 national general council in Durban, among all the nationalisation drama, the ANC planners inserted this little nugget:

“19. Some of the conspicuous achievements are:

• the transformation of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) from the state broadcaster to a public broadcaster; ….”

If it wasn’t so disturbingly at variance with reality, it would have been funny. (In fact, I did laugh reading it, but more out of desperation.)

Whoever wrote it, relayed a line, that was, umm, delusional.

Three years later, the SABC is plumbing new depths. And though we all sometimes believe the depths to which our state- and state-run organisations can sink are unlimited, this is not exactly the case. The SABC has become a first-class money sink that will soon deliver blank screens to our households. (Which would probably be an improvement in the programming quality delivered by the near-dead broadcasting giant.)

The reality is, the ANC government has proven over the past 19 years that it cannot manage the SABC (or any other parastatal). While its preference is and will always be that the SABC plays the role of a gigantic, all-inclusive “The New Age”, there is an obstacle that is proving to be insurmountable: sheer incompetence. The political interference, nepotism, back-stabbing and plain greed that’s been on display within the SABC at all levels, will never produce a good programme. Broadcast news and entertainment still require a certain level of professionalism, one that looks more and more impossible to attain for the SABC.

The government’s first prize, a well-run propaganda machine, remains only a dream. The state broadcaster is drifting not so slowly anymore towards a gigantic waterfall.

So now there’s interim board, no leadership, an army of demotivated employees, some first rate but completely disheartened, many more who simply should not be there.

The situation is dire.

Still, there’s a solution. It is drastic; some would say dramatic, but desperate times demand bold moves.

First, there’s an admission that needs to be made:

The SABC, in its current form, is beyond salvation.

Once there is an agreement that the deadly cocktail of political interference, incompetence and union power has turned Molotov, the shape of a solution emerges. And it is pretty simple, actually.

Here is the outline of what needs to be done:

Step 1: Declare that SABC is in re-organisation and communicate this with the unions.

Step 2: Hire a team of auditors to manage all transactions. Auditors need to be agreed upon by the parties in Parliament. (Remember, this needs to be a non-political process).

Step 3: Auction the entire list of SABC English-language properties as well other commercially-viable platforms, like Ukhozi FM, to private buyers.

The SABC does not lack the market share/audience, and if run properly, the individual properties can be massively profitable: there will be plenty of takers, at home and abroad.

To ensure that there’s no accumulation of power in the same hands, declare that no two or more properties can be owned by the same owner at the same time, directly or through obvious proxies. EVER.

Mandate the buyers to start broadcasting within a year of purchase completion.

Step 4: Appoint an expert team of non-South African media executives to run the remaining, non-English entities. (Yes, we do not have independent local talent to do it. Yes, uncomfortable truth. Live with it. After a few years of being run as a proper business and media organisation, the new talent will emerge, you can bet on it.)

Give the new management sweeping power to hire and fire (remember, you declared a re-organisation a while back).

Use some of the money from sales to pay all outstanding bills and boost the distribution of all properties.

Mandate free information-sharing between the privatised English-language properties and the remaining non-English properties. In other words, retain the right to translate their content, for free.

Make sure all remuneration is based strictly on performance.

So there you are: how to save the SABC by dismantling it in four easy steps. Make no mistake: this is not a return to the fragmentation of Apartheid, but a rational approach to saving a big chunk of South Africa’s media. By splitting the commercial platforms from the ones that need help, the government would be doing the country a favour.

But there’s one more step:

Step 5: Break with the past, dramatically.

For the longest time, the SABC building in Auckland Park was a symbol of Apartheid propaganda. Now is a symbol of chaos, unprofessionalism and hopelessness. It can, though, for a one last time, provide a really good bit of programming.

Yes, we’re talking a really good episode of The Detonators. The episode would include the history of the building and its role in South African history, interviews with intellectuals, journalists, politicians, neighbours and the explosion specialists. And then the explosive finale.

At this moment, the blood will boil over for many readers reading this column and they will scream:  “We’re not giving our national broadcaster to anyone, least of all to foreigners and capitalists!!!”

Are you kidding me?! A national broadcaster is as necessary as the SAA, arms deal and a heart attack. And if things continue to slide, as they are, soon there won’t even be a national broadcaster. Just silence. Maybe a test pattern.

Your choice, South Africa. DM

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