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SABC + ANC + Stella + unions = Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

In this column, I will endeavour to explain what is happening at the SABC. I had to add the word ‘endeavour’ because it is no easy task.

On the face of it, this is the situation: After years of being the plaything of #PresidunceZuma and King Hlaudi Motsoeneng the First (and thankfully only), the SABC is bankrupt and in a financial death spiral.

Half of its revenue is taken up by staff salaries. Yes, the 3,000 employees at Fawlty Towers consume half the corporation’s budget. Sound familiar?

It is a strange parallel to the whole country, where the salaries of public servants account for half of the nation’s budget. Some 1.2 million public servants get half of everything we taxpayers contribute to the fiscus. The other half is for the other 58 million of us. Well, minus the 21% of Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s annual Budget that goes to paying the debt left behind from Zuma’s “lost” decade. So, 30% is left for all the little things such as healthcare, education, policing, pensions and, oh, rebuilding our country after the economic wasteland of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Over at the bankrupt state broadcaster, they are trying to do what all distressed businesses try to do: cut costs, reduce staff counts, increase productivity and, generally, be a better company. That’s what the board seems to want.

Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams and the government, as the shareholder, appear to want to appease the ruling party’s union tripartite alliance partners. Perhaps. It isn’t really certain what is going on. In November the board tried to retrench 600 staff, reduced to 400, before the minister told them not to. Last year, facing stiff revenue shortfalls and imminent bankruptcy, the board tried to retrench 1,000 staffers. The minister intervened.

Both times, the reasonable, rational thing to do (cut staff costs) was vetoed by Ndabeni-Abrahams – seemingly on instructions from Luthuli House to keep the unions happy. Thankfully, there’s always that bailout from Treasury.

The SABC is dangerously antiquated. It is falling technologically behind other broadcasters. Meanwhile, it has more journalists than any media organisation – and who are also the least productive.

Having been destroyed by King Hlaudi The Mad, and controversial board chair and Zuma ally Ellen Tshabalala PhD, the SABC desperately needs to become more professional and increase its revenue.

So, in 2020, what is the Miscommunications Department’s alternative business plan? Reclassify smartphones as televisions so the SABC can impose its absurd TV licence tax on the whole country, not just television owners. Or get Netflix or DStv to collect that TV licence fee because the SABC is now so thoroughly useless it can’t even collect its own revenue gift in apartheid-hangover tax.

These absurd recommendations were presented to Parliament by Deputy Communications Minister Pinky Kekana, who has been implicated in State Capture at the Zondo commission by Edwin Sodi, the same tenderpreneur who is facing charges of corruption alongside Ace Magashule, “the ANC’s smallanyana skeleton-general”, as Richard Poplak calls him.

The problem with the unions in South Africa is that they have lost sight of the bigger picture. In the era when Zuma showed that rampant self-interest would be tolerated at the highest office, the unions have become emboldened in their increasingly outrageous demands.

Witness what happened at SAA last year, when the demands of the unions and their ill-fated, self-destructive six-day strike effectively shut down the already teetering airline.

Now, from that 30% left over in Mboweni’s Budget, R10.5-billion has been taken from schools, hospitals and the police to recapitalise what will still be a failed airline. Where was the unions’ outrage when Dudu Myeni was chair and made such grievous decisions that civil action organisation Outa was able to have her declared a delinquent director?

The unions have only one objective: their own survival, seemingly at any cost. Although SAA was already broken, at least it was operational. Last year’s strike killed it. Some 3,000 SAA employees’ interests have trumped those of 58 million South Africans who have to forfeit R10.5-billion worth of schools, hospitals and police stations. So much for replacing all those pit latrines at schools. The same precarious game of self-interest is playing out in Auckland Park.

I don’t know which of the union spokespeople said it on eNCA news recently, but they complained that the board was not in agreement with the minister. Really? That weak line.

Where were the unions when Ndabeni-Abrahams’ predecessor, Faith Muthambi, was countermanding ANC policy and also interfering in the running of the SABC?

Like SAA, where a six-day strike proved to be the straw that broke the airline’s back, the SABC is being sunk by the minority unionised interests and a captive shareholder. It’s as tawdry as the soapies the SABC broadcasts. Only much more damaging in the real world. DM/BM

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All Comments 7

  • Do we really need state run media and airlines ? This privatization by evolution may be just the natural progression of things ? But you explained the sticky part as the salaries. Very good explanation thank you.

    Btw Its Poplak (sp)

  • A perfect storm of political ideology meets manifest irrationality. The downward spiral will only continue until the lightbulb suddenly flashes – ditch the dogma and the unions.

  • I do not find fault with Toby Shapshak’s piece. I’d just like to say a couple of things about the following lines I’ve lifted from it:

    “The SABC is dangerously antiquated. It is falling technologically behind other broadcasters. Meanwhile, it has more journalists than any media organisation – and who are also the least productive.”

    Yes, the SABC is antiquated, and it is falling technologically behind other broadcaster – in some instances however, this is not a problem. Keep in mind that the most listened to radio stations in this country are SABC indigenous language stations – a not inconsiderable number of these listeners use FM radios that would not only be a pain in the ass to replace, but an unnecessary financial burden as well. Sometimes analogue technology is the appropriate technology (in vast regions of this continent, shortwave is still the main vehicle for receiving information from outside the local area).

    As far as having more journalists than any other media organisation is concerned – well, it should. The SABC has a bigger mandate in South Africa than any other media organisation – to serve the entire country in all the official languages on radio and television.

    As far as the journalists being the least productive is concerned, well, that’s a mixed bag and of course it needs to be addressed. Those who are not productive should be given an ultimatum: shape up or ship out. Unlike SAA, the SABC is a tie that binds the country together. More than ever, South Africa needs a quality public broadcaster that can unite and make us proud. The people who call for trashing it are usually those who do not rely on it. Millions do.

  • I’m still curious as to where this whole ‘TV licences for smartphones, laptops and tablets’ suggestions is going to go. Does the SABC really expect people to start paying a TV licence for a business tool?

    More to the point, are we going to see the private sector kick up a fuss about this proposed new licensing regime? remember, many organisations were forced to unexpectedly shell out hundreds of thousands of rands in order to ensure employees were outfitted with laptops so they could work from home during the government-ordered lockdown.
    Having already been hammered in their budgets by this unexpected expense, how happy will they be when they then have to shell out additional money to pay for TV licenses for these laptops? Further, there will probably be other challenges related to this – companies will say that the laptop is used by the employee, so they must pay the licence; employees will claim its not their machine, so they shouldn’t have to pay.
    And of course, there’s the small matter of trying to get streaming sites to collect the licence fee for the SABC – how will that even work, since the TV licence is an annual fee, but the streamers operate on month-to month contracts?

    Basically, this is yet another genius move brought to you by the same people that thought it would be a great idea to relaunch a thoroughly discredited and failed airline – right in the middle of a global pandemic when no one is travelling and even the best run airlines are in financial distress….

  • One couldn’t create a more absurd, tragic and fictional soapie and yet this is the reality of SA under this obnoxious, deceitful, clueless, inept and corrupt-to-the-core anc. A once respected and noble movement turned into a den of thieves, parasites and degenerates. A better life for all is their motto – what a sick joke – all they leave is a wasteland and a bankrupt country. Steal, break, destroy – that’s the creed and DNA of these monsters!