Bad habits d ie hard at SABC
Many of the troubles the SABC is facing are squarely rooted in the broadcaster’s inability to transform
THE SABC’s perennial financial troubles are rooted in the public broadcaster’s tenuous history and gross lapses of leadership in the post-apartheid state. The SABC was “captured” at its inception, a malaise that continues unabated today. After apartheid officially ended, the SABC had to be transformed in line with the letter and spirit of the young democratic, non-sexist and non-racial society.
This otherwise noble and critical national task saw narrow party-political goals produce the SABC’s current crisis as powerful political elites ran the public broadcaster down.
As a former broadcaster and specialist in the area, it hurts me to hear that a major institution like the SABC can fail to do well in terms of its mandate and business objectives. To learn that it faces a R1.19 billion loss, including actuarial losses on its pension fund and post-employment medical aid commitments, simply boggles the mind.
Why is the SABC consistently being run by people who fail it dismally on fundamentals and seem clueless about creating a vibrant and financially sound institution?
The SABC is still a major player in the sector. With an estimated 28 million combined radio weekly listenership and more than 21 million TV viewers, it should be a family jewel.
The fact that it is not says a lot about gross incompetence, poor vision and a failure of oversight by both the government and Parliament. SABC radio stations have no business trying to mimic new commercial stations as if their traditional and massive audiences have suddenly died.
Since bloated management structures at the SABC have failed to compete with the agility of the small and innovative commercial stations, they must be trimmed and taken on refresher programmes.
SABC board chairperson Bongumusa Makhathini is bold to have stated in the company’s 2018 annual report that corruption at the SABC was a result of “years of ineffective leadership”. But where were we as South Africans to have allowed this disaster to unfold?
The SABC also faces numerous questions of ethics and morality on matters relating to procurement, gender equity and sexual harassment, yet another vestige of the old order.
The SABC was essentially created to serve the propaganda aims of a threatened and illegitimate white minority.
Despite its genuine transformation commitments, under Zwelakhe Sisulu and Ihron Rensburg, in the main, the post-apartheid SABC remained trapped in a business model and work ethic that belonged in the past. Examples include an over-reliance on the state purse for survival, being cowed into submission by politicians and taking the SABC’s primary audiences for granted.
Allegations of blatant bribery at the SABC’s radio stations are also elements inherited from the old SABC. The practice of payola and other forms of bribery frustrate genuine talent and popularise content that is not doing much for rebuilding our nation.
While rapid strides were being made globally and locally as regards business remodelling, broadcast technologies and aggressive audience development, the public broadcaster was reduced to a spoilt brat and a loudhailer at its political master’s service.
Who can forget the boring “townhall”-type TV broadcasts that were forced on SABC television stations which were not based on quality customer and audience-centric content but effectively for the egos of politicians? These dull broadcasts also reflected a serious lack of creativity and diligence on the part of the GCIS, the primary communication arm of the government. No wonder aspects of this dark phase at the SABC are under the microscope at the State Capture commission of inquiry.
Today’s employment dispensation, which relies more on casual labour, seems to do very little for enhancing a culture of total commitment to the SABC and its mandate by some of its prominent employees.
It has become a platform where people launch their career as an influencer/celebrity without appreciating the overall good of broader society. There also seems to be a lack of clear guidelines relating to how individual broadcasters may avoid advancing their personal business interests through abusing their platforms at the SABC.
Yet another bad habit inherited from the past is that of using the SABC as an employee bureau, thereby unduly increasing staff without due regard to managing cost efficiencies.
Today it’s largely black people who face a bleak future, mainly because management at the SABC took ill-conceived decisions without being subjected to consequence management. Cost management and fiscal discipline have been sacrificed at the altar of short-termism and populist political rhetoric.
That is why it is unjustifiable for the SABC workers, permanent or not, to lose their jobs, because of corrupt powerful elites who have been sleeping on the job.
Dr VVO Mkhize is the president/ founder of Umsamo Institute, an expert in African traditions, announcer at the then Radio Zulu for 12 years, an author and a scholar in broadcasting. His PhD thesis examined: The spoken and written word: stylistic creation in black broadcasting.