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 Sunday Independent - - METRO - DR VVO MKHIZE

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.

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