POP­ULISM WON’T STOP SABC WOES

New board and man­age­ment must get on with their work, how­ever tough it may be, write Duduet­sang Makuse and Jus­tine Limpit­law

CityPress - - Voices - Makuse and Limpit­law are with the SOS Coali­tion

Last year, Par­lia­ment’s ad hoc com­mit­tee on the

SABC is­sued its ground­break­ing re­port, which ex­am­ined the pub­lic broad­caster’s dis­as­trous fi­nan­cial po­si­tion; its nu­mer­ous wrong­ful staff ap­point­ments; and the over­all lack of in­de­pen­dence of the SABC, char­ac­terised by min­is­te­rial in­ter­fer­ence.

Af­ter for­mer chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Hlaudi Mot­soe­neng’s ex­pen­sive and fu­tile court bat­tles, the high court en­dorsed the SOS Sup­port Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing Coali­tion’s view that the SABC was not an or­di­nary state-owned en­ter­prise and needed to be in­de­pen­dent. Par­lia­ment acted swiftly to ap­point a com­pe­tent and in­de­pen­dent board, whose cre­den­tials are ex­cel­lent. In turn, they acted swiftly to bring in talent.

The ex­ec­u­tive got to work on de­vel­op­ing a much­needed turn­around plan to right the sink­ing ship. And there was a lot to turn around. The big­gest prob­lem was – and is – a salary bill of R3.1 bil­lion that was en­tirely unaffordable. It was clearly un­ten­able and jeop­ar­dises the fi­nan­cial sus­tain­abil­ity of the SABC. As part of its turn­around plan, the SABC gave no­tice, pub­licly, that re­trench­ments were in the mix.

In the uproar that fol­lowed, you would have been for­given for for­get­ting that cost-sav­ing mea­sures, which in­cluded a re­duc­tion of the wage bill, were among the terms and con­di­tions that were or­dered by then fi­nance min­is­ter Pravin Gord­han when he gave the SABC a govern­ment bank guar­an­tee of R1.47 bil­lion in 2009. The SABC man­aged to turn it­self around and pay back part of the loan given to it by Ned­bank on the back of the govern­ment guar­an­tee. But, by 2011, it still failed to meet some of the crit­i­cal tar­gets that came with the guar­an­tee, among them to:

● En­hance ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue by R535 mil­lion;

● In­crease spon­sor­ship rev­enue by R128 mil­lion;

● De­crease the wage bill by R287 mil­lion; and

● Re­duce pro­fes­sional or con­sul­tancy fees by R136 mil­lion.

In 2012, Mot­soe­neng went on a hir­ing and purg­ing spree, among other ac­tiv­i­ties that Par­lia­ment later cat­e­gorised as waste­ful and ir­reg­u­lar ex­pen­di­ture. A layer of mid-level man­agers was hired un­law­fully es­sen­tially to carry out Mot­soe­neng’s di­rec­tives. The Spe­cial In­ves­ti­gat­ing Unit is­sued a sum­mons against Mot­soe­neng for R21 mil­lion, which in­cluded R11 mil­lion in bonuses and R10.7 mil­lion in dam­ages re­lated to ir­reg­u­lar ap­point­ments and dis­missals of staff dur­ing his ten­ure. Ad­di­tion­ally, the Pub­lic Pro­tec­tor and the Au­di­tor-Gen­eral have made de­tailed find­ings in re­spect of Mot­soe­neng’s un­law­ful and waste­ful staffing bloat.

One would have thought that Par­lia­ment would have re­acted with rue­ful sym­pa­thy for SABC man­age­ment given the predica­ment it in­her­ited, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing its own woe­ful lack of proper over­sight of suc­ces­sive fail­ing SABC boards and ex­ec­u­tive man­age­ment. Oddly, this didn’t hap­pen.

The DA de­manded that the ex­ec­u­tive directors’ salaries im­me­di­ately be dis­closed – they are al­ways dis­closed in the an­nual re­port. But, in­stead of sim­ply writ­ing to the SABC re­quest­ing this, the DA went via the min­is­ter of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the Cabi­net po­si­tion re­spon­si­ble for his­tor­i­cally egre­gious and un­law­ful in­ter­fer­ence in SABC af­fairs go­ing back more than a decade. Said min­is­ter thus had grist for her mill of at­tack­ing the SABC’s pro­posed re­trench­ments, with cer­tain unions whose un­flag­ging sup­port for Mot­soe­neng is a mat­ter of pub­lic record.

Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans have in­sisted that re­trench­ments can­not be a first port of call. They are right to say so. But a cur­sory read­ing of the SABC’s turn­around plan makes it clear that re­trench­ments have been pro­posed as a last re­sort and are not the only or even the pri­mary plan to re­duce cost driv­ers.

The DA has tried to make out that trans­parency at the SABC is some­how at risk.

But any­one who has en­gaged the SABC re­cently – whether in one of its in­de­pen­dently con­ducted in­ves­ti­ga­tions into po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence or sex­ual ha­rass­ment, in its face-to-face town hall meet­ing with con­tent pro­duc­ers or in its pub­lic fo­rums with civil so­ci­ety – knows that the open stance of the SABC is a breath of fresh air.

The adage is that a fish rots from its head. But the op­po­site is true – good lead­er­ship can ef­fect great change.

The pub­lic is jus­ti­fi­ably fed up with poorly run sta­te­owned en­ter­prises de­mand­ing hand­outs – Denel, the SA Post Of­fice and SAA are all clam­our­ing for bailouts.

The SABC is lumped in that cat­e­gory. How­ever, the SABC has not been a bad bet in this re­gard. It has paid back, with in­ter­est, the pre­vi­ous bank loan guar­an­teed by govern­ment. De­spite its dire fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion (it is tech­ni­cally in­sol­vent), it is not re­quest­ing a bailout – that is, ac­tual money to be given to it out of our taxes. It is ask­ing for a govern­ment guar­an­tee to give its cred­i­tors and lenders some com­fort that govern­ment is be­hind the SABC’s lead­er­ship, and to give it time to im­ple­ment its pro­posed strat­egy.

The SABC is the sin­gle largest provider of news and cur­rent af­fairs to the peo­ple of this na­tion and it will re­main so for a very long time … in­clud­ing through next year’s elec­tion.

The rich might not rely on it, but the masses do. Sup­port­ing it so that it can be a proper pub­lic broad­caster that pro­vides ex­cel­lent and cred­i­ble pro­gram­ming is the best de­fence of a democ­racy.

Par­lia­ment did its fun­da­men­tal job some months ago – it ap­pointed a good board. Sadly, since then, it has re­peat­edly post­poned mak­ing the board ap­point­ments nec­es­sary to fill va­can­cies. The pub­lic in­ter­est re­quires it to fill board va­can­cies, not to at­tempt to man­age the SABC’s fi­nances and hu­man re­sources op­er­a­tions.

So, what now? Par­lia­ment and the min­is­ter are aligned in what they clearly see as a vote-win­ning tac­tic to fight re­trench­ments – as if those are at the heart of the SABC’s plans, as if th­ese won’t be done in ac­cor­dance with the Labour Re­la­tions Act or last week’s Con­sti­tu­tional Court judg­ment on re­trench­ments. It ap­pears that they both agree with the min­is­ter’s re­cent state­ment that the well­be­ing of the SABC is “not the exclusive do­main of the staff and its man­age­ment”. They are both in­cor­rect in law on this as sec­tion 13(11) of the Broad­cast­ing Act ex­plic­itly pro­vides that the SABC board “con­trols the af­fairs of the cor­po­ra­tion”; sec­tion 13(13) makes it clear that the board “is the ac­count­ing author­ity of the cor­po­ra­tion”.

Nei­ther the min­is­ter nor Par­lia­ment can or should as­sume such roles. We say: Let the SABC board and man­age­ment get on with its work. If the SABC acts un­law­fully around re­trench­ments, civil so­ci­ety and the unions will, of course, head to the courts.

PHOTO: VELI NHLAPO / SOWETAN / GALLO IM­AGES

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