On 25 September 2018, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) appeared before the Communications Portfolio Committee in Parliament to present its turnaround strategy.
As part of the turnaround strategy the SABC indicated it was considering the possibility of implementing Section 189 of the Labour Relations Act – the retrenchment of staff – as a measure to cut costs. Employee costs were at R3.1-billion‚ which was 42% of the public broadcaster’s expenditure.
SABC board Chairperson, Bongumusa Makhathini informed the committee it was not an accurate reflection that the SABC’s turnaround strategy focused only on retrenching staff.
Fast-forward to October, the SABC’s 2017/18 annual reveals a public broadcaster commercially insolvent with financial losses for the year at R622-million and its cash flow at – R1.2-billion. The Auditor-General also finds irregular expenditure at R5-billion and fruitless and wasteful of R230-million, with only 40% of targets reached.
On 29 October, the GCEO of SABC, Madoda Maxakwe sends a “Notice of Redundancy Retrenchment” to the SABC’s staff.
He indicates: “…the SABC has already embarked upon several cost cutting measures, but there is simply no manner in which a complete organisational wide restructuring and reduction of positions can be avoided, and with it, the issue of possible retrenchments are regrettably contemplated.”
The restructuring and retrenchments would result in cost savings close to R440-million “even at this preliminary stage”, with ending contracts of approximately 1200 freelancers and a further 981 staff at all levels of the SABC, Maxakwe states. A reading of the notice reveals that “all levels” does not include top management.
He further states that he envisages that consultation processes will be finalised by 31 January 2019, and notices of termination of employment would be given effective from 1 February 2019.
It is no secret why the SABC finds it itself in a financial quagmire. It follows many years of financial mismanagement, exorbitant salary increases on a yearly basis, corruption, political interference and cadre deployment by the ANC.
It is a sad truth, the SABC’s staff is bloated. It currently employs 3376 staff and 2,400-freelancers, which accounts for almost half of its expenditure.
Restructuring and possible retrenchments may indeed be unavoidable as the SABC claims, however not before all other cost-cutting measures are fully considered and implemented. Retrenchment must be the very last resort.
In particular, retrenchments cannot be considered before a proper independent skills and salary audit is conducted. In a reply to a parliamentary question, the Minister of Communications, Nomvula Mokonyane revealed that the SABC had not conducted a skills audit before deciding on a section 189 process.
The SABC board and its management needs to know the full state of the organisational structure of the public broadcaster, where skills are lacking, which units are over-staffed, where salaries are too high and so forth before implementing what would be a well-considered and informed process of restructuring.
Such an audit would not be without precedent. In 2012, the SABC tabled a report before in Parliament of its own staff and skills audit, but it was deemed to be inadequate as it had been prepared internally, an independent body was needed to conduct the audit to present an objective view of the SABC’s skills. PriceWaterHouseCoopers (PWC) was then contracted due to its technical proficiency in the field. PwC conducted a wide-ranging skills audit and an authentication of qualifications at SABC. Amongst other findings, PWC found executives and senior managers, lacked skills in communication, time management, strategic thinking, broadcast engineering, budgeting, creative writing and scripting, and, crucially, business management.
It has been five years since the PWC audit, and much has changed at the SABC, for the worse. The last five years saw intensified financial mismanagement, irregular appointments and salary increases. Another independent audit is therefore needed before any talk of retrenching staff.
Importantly, a full audit of the SABC’s wage bill is needed is also needed. Currently, a wide chasm exists between the salaries earned by staff at the public broadcaster. As an example, the GCEO earns in excess of R4-million per annum as a basic salary, while some journalists earn a net salary of R15,000 a month.
The SABC management, and particularly its board’s response to calls for a skills and salary audit has been nothing short of abhorrent.
I asked for the SABC to reveal the salaries of its top three executives and it point-blank refused to do so. A board member, Michael Markovitz went as far as to call my request “trolling”. It was only through a parliamentary question that the information was revealed by the Minister Mokonyane. If a Minister like Mokonyane who is not known for accountability has a better sense of openness and transparency than the members that make up the SABC board, then you must know that something is seriously wrong.
The SABC’s treatment of its staff has been equally horrendous. Last week SABC staff decided to picket against retrenchments during their lunch hour and were met with a strongly worded letter from the Head of HR, Jonathan Thekiso stating that disciplinary action would be taken against any staff involved in the picket. Photos were taken off staff at the picket. Even during the reign of Hlaudi Motsoeneng, such authoritarianism did not exist at the SABC. It is seriously disturbing.
When Parliament approved the list of 12 board members the DA and other opposition parties strongly objected to the re-deployment of ANC cadres, Krish Naidoo and Febe Potgieter-Gqubule to the SABC Board. We also objected against the approval of Dikwanyane Mohuba and Bongumusa Makhathini who had questionable connections to the ANC. Mohuba did not allay suspicions of his closeness to former ANC Limpopo Chair, Cassel Mathale, and Makhathini at the time served as the Chairperson of the foundation of former President Jacob Zuma’s wife, Bongi Ngema-Zuma. Mohuba is now facing allegations that he allegedly hired people to write his doctorate thesis.
Despite our reservations, we gave the board support, with trust that members like Michael Markovitz, Khanyisile Kweyama, Mathatha Tsedu, Rachel Kalidass and John Mattison would form a bastion against any malfeasance.
Makhathini, had proven until the retrenchment process to be a good Chairperson, fighting off attempts of political interference and re-affirming the SABC’s independence.
There is still time to correct what could be a disaster. We trust that the SABC’s board and management will take the constructive criticism and work hard to prevent unwarranted job losses at the SABC.
At this stage, we are simply unsatisfied that the SABC board has done enough in terms of cost-cutting measures. It has not exhausted its options. As an example the SABC owns a huge property portfolio it could use to generate profit. It owns properties abroad, including a seafront multi-storey building in Sea Point, which, if sold, could generate hundreds of millions profit for the SABC, possibly more than the R440 million it seeks to gain from retrenching staff.
The SABC is due to appear before the Communications Portfolio Committee on Tuesday 12 November to report on its retrenchment process. It has a lot to answer for. With millions unemployed in South Africa, we will simply cannot allow for thousands more to be added from the SABC until we are satisfied the SABC has done its homework thoroughly. So far, it has not. DM