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The never-ending (and bizarre) set-top box series of unfortunate events

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

Ministerial interference at the SABC continues as failure to deliver set-top boxes sees switch-off of analogue television signals postponed again.

Would you trust the corruption-tainted Communications Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, dogged by her association with the Gupta takeover and ruination of Denel, now another state-owned basket case? Or do you believe the board of the SABC, which appears to be earnestly trying to save the state broadcaster from itself – and the perennial interference of whoever is communications minister at the time?

That is the most reasonable way to approach a dispute generally, isn’t it? Examine the motives of two clashing parties when they dispute apparently incontrovertible facts?

This is especially true because it’s yet another weird interaction between a communications minister and the state broadcaster.

At issue this time is the frankly bizarre outburst by Ntshavheni over the SABC’s statement about the government’s switch-off of analogue television signals on 31 March – as was promised by President Cyril Ramaphosa in more than one state of the nation address. These 700MHz and 800MHz frequencies are highly sought-after by mobile operators, and are considered so valuable to wireless broadband that they are called the digital dividend. However, so that millions of people could still receive the free-to-air SABC and e.tv broadcasts, the government was supposed to subsidise 2.9-million poor households.

Only 165,000 such set-top boxes were installed by the end of February, the SABC said in a statement last week.

The number of installed set-top boxes, it said, “is simply too low for the SABC’s analogue TV services to be switched off in the four largest provinces, at this stage”.

The problem for the SABC, it adds, is that those lost millions of viewers will have a commercial impact on its bottom line. This is because – I’m typing slowly in case the minister ever reads this – fewer viewers equate to less advertising revenue.

How does the esteemed minister respond?

In a fit of pique, she threatens to withdraw her approval of the SABC’s financials because she now accuses them of, wait for it, inaccurate information. These reports were from as far back as the 2020 financial year, when it seemed like the government would do its own job and deliver the set-top boxes.

Now Ntshavheni has spitefully threatened to withdraw her signature from the SABC’s books with both Parliament and with the Auditor-General.

On the face of it, given her links to the Guptarisation of Denel from a world-class armaments company into one that can’t pay salaries, that might not be a bad thing. Ntshavheni wrote to SABC board chairperson Bongumusa Makhathini, complaining that the SABC’s various statements contradicted each other and “cannot be mutually exclusive”. As with all classic ANC doublespeak, this was without any sense of irony whatsoever from a Cabinet minister of the ruling party that cannot understand “conflict of interest”. Nor, for that matter, simple things like pay Sars the UIF and PAYE you’ve deducted from Luthuli House staff, before the sheriff attaches anything of value – probably Luthuli House itself.

Just as a quick moral aside: the ruling party hasn’t paid more than R102-million in taxes it deducted from the salaries of its own staff. Let that sink in.

Meanwhile, Ntshavheni wrote to Parliament to “withdraw all the SABC quarterly performance reports submitted under my signature (fourth quarter of 2020/2021 and first, second and third quarters of 2021/2022) as they are based on inaccurate information. I do this because I cannot knowingly be party to performance reports that are misleading to Parliament”.

But until she threw her toys, she was perfectly happy to sign off on them. I wonder if she showed the same moral fortitude with Denel… Oh right, we know she didn’t.

Fortunately, late on Monday, 28 March, a full bench of the Pretoria High Court ordered Ntshavheni to postpone the analogue TV switch-off until 30 June. Consider that: once again, a rational court had to prevent the ruling party from defaulting on its constitutionally mandated requirement (for access to information) by interdicting it from, well, being stupid and self-destructive. Again. It’s like the script of a telenovela – a Succession Mzansi with dysfunctional and ruthless family members played by sycophants and incompetent ministers, with other toxically ambitious characters like former SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

Let’s recap: the government has failed to provide the decoders needed to convert digital signals for older televisions sets, despite having utterly missed its agreed-to July 2015 deadline to switch off these analogue TV signals. Of the 2.9-million set-top boxes it was supposed to supply to indigent households, the ANC has only delivered 165,000. In seven years since the deadline.

So mobile operators’ win is the broader, poorer population’s loss – through neither party’s fault. The unfortunate flipside of this broadband bonanza is that there are no longer any TV signals – which is a giant problem for the millions of South Africans who can no longer watch television.

Was it the SABC’s fault that the set-top boxes haven’t been provided? Or was it the job of the communications minister?

Another factor – if you were an alien who recently arrived in Mzansi and you were trying to work out why government is so hostile and aggressive to, well, everyone – is how Ntshavheni lashed out at former Post Office CEO Mark Barnes for – can you believe it – daring to offer to save the Post Office. Again.

Barnes “did not turn around Sapo, and it’s very rich for him to say he wants to buy Sapo,” Ntshavheni ranted in reply to a parliamentary question.

“If he was serious about turning around Sapo, we would not be sitting where we are. The problems of Sapo are coming even from the period when he was CEO. We are not interested in the offer. We have a plan with the current management and board of Sapo to reposition Sapo and turn it around and we are confident that we will achieve that.”

Really, a plan. Hopefully not any plan dreamt up by the intellectually bereft boards of any Gupta-era state-owned enterprises, say, like Denel…

As Barnes pointed out in Business Day: “If government doesn’t like an offer, they can politely say ‘no’, not attack a person.”

Perhaps I should rephrase my initial questions: Who would you trust: corruption-tainted Communications Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, dogged by her association with the Gupta takeover of Denel, now another state-owned basket case?

Or literally anybody else? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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