The real victims of the SABC disas­ter

The pub­lic broad­caster’s grad­ual down­ward spi­ral has en­gulfed many of its em­ploy­ees in un­cer­tainty.

Finweek English Edition - - ON THE MONEY PUBLIC BROADCASTER - editorial@fin­ By Lloyd Gedye

afew weeks ago, a fam­ily mem­ber popped round for Sun­day lunch. As we chat­ted over a good meal, he spoke about a friend who has been work­ing as a con­trac­tor for the SABC. “She is pan­ick­ing,” he said. “She doesn’t know if they were go­ing to get paid, never mind if their con­tracts would be re­newed.” At the SABC head­quar­ters, talk was that things were bad.

At a Satur­day brunch a week ear­lier, another friend re­vealed that he’d heard sto­ries of pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies not get­ting paid. “We’re con­tin­u­ing on with this sea­son of the show, but we have no idea what will hap­pen with next sea­son,” said an em­ployee at such a com­pany. “If we don’t get the money, we won’t be able to make the show and I will be out of work.”

A few weeks later, at another Sun­day lunch, more guests lamented their un­cer­tain fu­tures at the state broad­caster.

These sec­ond-hand ac­counts made me think about all the SABC em­ploy­ees whom I had spo­ken to last year dur­ing my in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the rot that had set in at the com­pany (see Fraud, lies and video­tape, 23 Fe­bru­ary edi­tion). I’d spo­ken to peo­ple who had suf­fered un­der the tyranny of for­mer SABC chief op­er­at­ing officer Hlaudi Mot­soe­neng, a man still singing his own praises from the rooftops.

So much so that his re­cent press con­fer­ence, where he attacked the in­terim board and mocked the par­lia­men­tary in­quiry into the af­fairs of the SABC, has re­sulted in fresh dis­ci­plinary charges for al­legedly bring­ing the broad­caster into dis­re­pute.

Con­tent suf­fers

Those SABC staffers, who had bravely spo­ken to me while fac­ing an in­cred­i­bly hos­tile work en­vi­ron­ment, were now the ones on the re­ceiv­ing end of the pub­lic broad­caster’s col­lapse. Their fam­i­lies – their chil­dren – will pay the price for the cul­ture of un­ac­count­abil­ity that in­fected the in­sti­tu­tion.

Mean­while ru­mours are fly­ing that soon even full-time SABC staffers could face not be­ing paid. There is a sen­ti­ment that the cur­rent fi­nan­cial cri­sis is caus­ing more dam­age than the one in 2009 and is only go­ing to get worse.

Ob­vi­ously the knock-on ef­fects on SABC sched­ul­ing are go­ing to hap­pen with spec­u­la­tion that from this month, the SABC is go­ing to be forced to dip into li­brary con­tent to cut costs. View­ers are likely to see an in­crease in old re­peats. There have also been re­ports that sub­ti­tling will be done away with this month.

Bailout needed

The state broad­caster re­cently con­firmed that it is in talks with Na­tional Trea­sury and the de­part­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tions to se­cure a guar­an­tee, af­ter it failed to pay some of its con­tent sup­pli­ers in March and April. The SABC’s in­terim board is re­port­edly seek­ing at least R1bn. “It’s bad. It’s bad,” were the words used by the SABC’s in­terim board chair Khany­isile Kweyama when speak­ing to me­dia re­cently about the broad­caster’s fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion. Kweyama ad­mit­ted that things were so dire that the in­terim board didn’t know ex­actly how much of a guar­an­tee was go­ing to be needed.

The in­terim board’s deputy chair Mathatha Tsedu told Par­lia­ment re­cently that the SABC had lost over R200m be­cause of Mot­soe­neng’s uni­lat­eral 90% lo­cal quota and that the SABC would be rev­ers­ing the de­ci­sion: “A lot of stupid de­ci­sions were made with­out ap­ply­ing in­tel­li­gence.” He added that these changes had led to lower viewer num­bers and a sub­se­quent loss of ad­ver­tis­ing.

High-level de­ci­sions like rev­ers­ing the 90% quota, ap­point­ing new ex­ec­u­tives, re­vis­ing editorial poli­cies and ad­dress­ing com­mis­sion­ing pro­cesses are vi­tal and can­not hap­pen overnight.

The true victims

But it’s im­por­tant not to for­get that the peo­ple bear­ing the ma­jor brunt of this man­u­fac­tured cri­sis are the em­ploy­ees. And it’s im­por­tant that those who caused this mess are not left to sim­ply con­tinue with their lives as if noth­ing had hap­pened.

Throw­ing the book at them is the right thing to do, not just for the work­ers, or the view­ers, but be­cause it will send an im­por­tant mes­sage about the new SABC that is go­ing to be built.

Kweyama has told me­dia that the in­terim board wants Mot­soe­neng to be af­forded a fair dis­ci­plinary hear­ing when his pro­ceed­ings get un­der way. In ad­di­tion, the DA has talked of plans to write to the in­terim board call­ing for cur­rent SABC CEO and for­mer chief fi­nan­cial officer James Aguma to be sus­pended. The party ar­gues that un­der Aguma’s watch, the state broad­caster’s cash re­serves shrank from R1.5bn in 2014 to just un­der R200m in 2016.

It’s an almighty mess that is go­ing to take time to re­solve.

While that gets done, let’s not dis­re­spect the work­ers’ strug­gle in the face of ad­ver­sity. It’s im­por­tant to send a mes­sage that SABC staff should never have to bear the brunt of a cri­sis like this again.

Khany­isile Kweyama In­terim chair­per­son of the SABC board

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