The escalating crisis playing out at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), specifically with regard to the imminent retrenchment of hundreds of members of staff and their pleas to the president to intervene, is reason enough for the SABC and the Minister of Communications to finally get their act together.
Last year, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) called for a debate of urgent national importance in the National Assembly of Parliament. We suggested that retrenchments should be the last step and could possibly be avoided if the public broadcaster fixed its finances. Our calls, together with those of many other political parties, appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
It is not rocket science and it does not require an accountant to follow the money to see that the SABC is sitting on its own solutions.
For example, the SABC spent nearly R1.2-million on 100 bulletproof vests for its journalists – a purchase that Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams defended when asked by IFP MP Liezl van der Merwe if the vests were deemed necessary equipment.
Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams has also revealed that the public broadcaster spent R58.4-million on independent contractors between April and October in 2020.
The SABC is owed R57.1-million in unpaid television licences and advertising fees by government departments, municipalities and state-owned entities (SOEs): R29.2-million was owed in advertising sales, with R4.5-million owed by SOEs, R9.2-million owed by provincial departments, R13.1-million by national departments and R2.3-million by municipalities.
Further to this, the minister revealed to Parliament that the SABC’s legal bill stood at more than R65-million in November 2020.
For too long the SABC has labelled its woes as “historical” or legacy issues relating to Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s incumbency. Yes, these may play a role, however, many of the abovementioned financial decisions, as well as the inability to collect outstanding debt from government, occurred during the tenure of the current management at the SABC.
The status quo cannot be maintained at the SABC while our country is facing stringent austerity measures to raise our economy out of “junk” status.
We know that decades of financial bailouts for SOEs have contributed significantly to our country’s dire economic circumstances. Further bailouts – without the implementation of concrete solutions – are simply not feasible.
An examination of the SABC’s staff complement shows that it is a top-heavy staff structure. Currently, senior and middle management constitute 30% of the staff, but their salaries make up 44% of the cost of compensation, with 173 people at the SABC earning more than R1-million per year.
Government is not the solution to the problems at the SABC; government is the problem. Instability on a political level is to blame. There have been nine ministers over the past 10 years, some only serving in the communications portfolio for a few months. How can we have stability and progress with such instability?
The conflict between the board and the shareholder representative (the minister) plays out in the media, with conflicting messages about almost every decision. It indicates weak oversight and a lack of leadership, leaving the public and the staff at the SABC in a constant state of uncertainty.
While the SABC management and government sit on their hands, let us not forget the human cost, the impact of all this on the lives and livelihoods of those who work tirelessly to keep the lights on at the SABC – the journalists, the reporters, the anchors, the cameramen and women, and the technical staff.
The importance of the public broadcaster, not only in South Africa, but also in the rest of Africa, must be stressed. The SABC is the only broadcaster that speaks to the nation in all 11 official languages, and it is often the only source of news and information for many who live in the most remote and rural areas of our country.
We simply cannot allow the government to fail the public in delivering the primary mandate of the SABC, which is to keep the public informed, and to deliver unbiased, unfiltered news that is free and fair.
Now is not the time to seek more bailouts from an already strained National Treasury with an almost empty fiscus. Now is the time for financial restructuring and for political stability at the helm of the SABC.
With good management and cost-cutting in the right places, the SABC can save money and save jobs. DM