Ten­sions flare at pub­lic broad­caster as new com­mu­ni­ca­tions head turns up the heat to put a stop to all re­trench­ments

CityPress - - Front Page - CHARL BLIGNAUT and NGWAKO MODJADJI [email protected]­press.co.za [email protected]­press.co.za

New Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter Stella Nd­abeni-Abra­hams is at war with the SABC board and has threat­ened to re­port it to Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa and Par­lia­ment.

Just two weeks into her new job, Nd­abeni-Abra­hams is bat­tling the board over the re­trench­ments of 981 per­ma­nent staff and 1 200 free­lancers at the pub­lic broad­caster, and charges that board mem­bers re­fused to al­low her to first ne­go­ti­ate a bailout with Fi­nance Min­is­ter Tito Mboweni be­fore go­ing ahead with the job cuts.

The board re­ceived a blis­ter­ing let­ter from the min­is­ter yes­ter­day morn­ing, fol­low­ing a tense meet­ing at the SABC on Thurs­day where in­sid­ers say she de­manded an end to the re­trench­ments.

A board source who at­tended the meet­ing told City Press: “The board has made it very clear that the fi­nan­cial cri­sis it in­her­ited means that come Fe­bru­ary, March, there will be no money to pay any­body’s salaries.”

In the let­ter, Nd­abeni-Abra­hams men­tions a R3 bil­lion gov­ern­ment guar­an­tee that the SABC ap­plied for, and a R1.2 bil­lion loan fa­cil­ity from Trea­sury.

An­other source who at­tended the meet­ing con­firmed that Nd­abeni-Abra­hams, her deputy Pinky Kekana, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­istry’s act­ing di­rec­tor-gen­eral, Mashilo Boloka, and “sev­eral ad­vis­ers” ar­rived at the SABC and “met with the unions and staff be­fore even meet­ing the board”.

“Man­age­ment was not al­lowed to be at the meet­ing with staff. She told them that she was there to solve their prob­lems,” the source said.

“By the time the min­is­ter and her del­e­ga­tion met with the board and the ex­ec­u­tive, it was very clear she had come only to stop the re­trench­ments.

“She was threat­en­ing and very ag­gres­sive, as was her deputy. It felt clear she was pre­par­ing for a con­struc­tive dis­missal of the board.”

This is the sixth SABC board in 10 years. In 2014, for­mer board chair Ellen Tsha­bal­ala re­signed af­ter City Press re­vealed she had lied about her qual­i­fi­ca­tions. Her deputy Obert Maghuve suc­ceeded her and did his ut­most to pro­tect and re­tain for­mer chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Hlaudi Mot­soe­neng, whom many blame for the broad­caster’s cur­rent fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

In the let­ter dated Fri­day, Nd­abeni-Abra­hams said she had been forced to cut ties with the board af­ter a meet­ing on Thurs­day, and would “re­port this im­passe to the pres­i­dent, Par­lia­ment and all rel­e­vant stake­hold­ers”.

“The board made it clear at the meet­ing that, ir­re­spec­tive of the suc­cess of [a] gov­ern­ment guar­an­tee or bailout, they will still pro­ceed with re­trench­ments. As the share­holder rep­re­sen­ta­tive, we were left with no op­tion but to de­sist from all en­gage­ments with the SABC board,” she wrote.

“We re­alised that the board was no longer act­ing in the in­ter­ests of the com­pany, the share­holder, and Par­lia­ment as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of [the] South African pub­lic to which the SABC board is ac­count­able.”

Nd­abeni-Abra­hams also ac­cuses the board of be­ing re­solved to re­trench work­ers, re­gard­less of whether she is able to se­cure a bailout from Trea­sury.

But a board source told City Press that “in the last 14 months, there has been ab­so­lutely no co­op­er­a­tion from the de­part­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tions with re­gard to Trea­sury”.

In her let­ter, Nd­abeni-Abra­hams said she “pleaded” with the board to sus­pend the re­trench­ment no­tice, “to al­low us an op­por­tu­nity to fa­mil­iarise [sic] with the turn­around strat­egy, the bailout ap­pli­ca­tion, and fur­ther­more, in con­sid­er­a­tion of the im­pend­ing meet­ing be­tween my­self and the min­is­ter of fi­nance to dis­cuss the SABC’s fi­nan­cial po­si­tion. The board flatly de­clined this re­quest.”

Yet the let­ter also quotes the board say­ing it will “re­view the pace and quan­tum of the im­pact of the [re­trench­ments] should fund­ing be found”.

How­ever, in­sid­ers say this is part of a strat­egy, ahead of next year’s gen­eral elec­tion, to col­lapse the board so a new one can be ap­pointed and more ANC choices brought on to it.

The cur­rent board is widely re­garded as im­par­tial and in­de­pen­dent – and the more so it be­comes, the more it causes dis­quiet for the gov­ern­ing party, for whom the SABC is an im­por­tant elec­tion strat­egy com­po­nent.

The board source said Nd­abeni-Abra­hams was “try­ing to set up the view that the SABC is be­ing run by an ir­re­spon­si­ble board”.

“The fact that she walked in and gave the board a di­rec­tive is un­law­ful. She is try­ing to set the SABC board up to be dis­solved and she is us­ing the re­trench­ments to do it. It is po­lit­i­cal, it is about as­sert­ing con­trol and, of course, it is also be­cause of the elec­tions,” the source said.

“The board has also shared with the min­is­ter a le­gal opin­ion that, as mem­bers, we are per­son­ally li­able for trad­ing in an in­sol­vent busi­ness. She is try­ing to get us all to fall on our swords, but what are we guilty of?

“There has been no al­leged mis­con­duct. If the board goes, it is highly likely that a lot of the newly ap­pointed ex­ec­u­tives will walk.”

Yes­ter­day, ru­mours cir­cu­lated that the SABC’s deputy board chair, Khany­isile Kweyama, and board mem­ber Kr­ish Naidoo were re­sign­ing. Naidoo de­nied this, but said there were “some mis­un­der­stand­ings” be­tween SABC board mem­bers and that some be­lieved the board was in­de­pen­dent, while oth­ers did not.

“We are ac­count­able to the min­is­ter, Par­lia­ment and Scopa (the stand­ing com­mit­tee on pub­lic ac­counts). We can­not have a board that is to­tally in­de­pen­dent from gov­ern­ment,” Naidoo said.

She is try­ing to set the SABC board up to be dis­solved and she is us­ing the re­trench­ments to do it. It is po­lit­i­cal, it is about as­sert­ing con­trol and, of course, it is also be­cause of the elec­tions

He de­fended Nd­abeni-Abra­hams, say­ing she was ex­er­cis­ing her over­sight role: “She is en­ti­tled to meet with the board and get re­ports. That is not in­ter­fer­ence.” Kweyama was un­avail­able for com­ment. Par­lia­men­tary sources told City Press they be­lieved the ANC in­structed its mem­bers on the board to re­sign. “They want to make the board in­quo­rate,” said one.

“[The min­is­ter] does not seem to un­der­stand that the fail­ure of the board will mean the fail­ure of the SABC.

“We are proud of the work that the board has done in fill­ing po­si­tions, en­abling the Spe­cial In­ves­ti­gat­ing Unit to do its work and de­vel­op­ing a turn­around strat­egy.”

A board source said they had “re­ceived no help what­so­ever from any of the three min­is­ters who have been in the po­si­tion [Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, Nomvula Mokonyane and Nd­abeni-Abra­hams] since we started as a board”.

“Now we are be­ing hung out to dry when the truth is that the re­trench­ments are the only way to cut costs. If they can show us the money, then the board will re­con­sider.

“In 14 months there has been no min­is­ter to bat for us, so what ev­i­dence do we have that she will get us the money to keep the broad­caster afloat?”

In a state­ment to City Press, the board con­firmed the meet­ing with Nd­abeni-Abra­hams and re­ceiv­ing the let­ter from her yes­ter­day.

“The board is busy de­vel­op­ing a com­pre­hen­sive re­sponse to the is­sues raised,” it How do you feel about the re­trench­ments at the pub­lic broad­caster? Do you think the min­is­ter is un­der­min­ing the board and scor­ing po­lit­i­cal points?

SMS us on 35697 us­ing the keyword SABC and tell us what you think. In­clude your name and prov­ince. SMSes cost R1.50. By par­tic­i­pat­ing, you agree to re­ceive oc­ca­sional mar­ket­ing ma­te­rial said. “The board con­tin­ues to de­lib­er­ate on this mat­ter and re­mains com­mit­ted to find­ing a so­lu­tion that is in the best in­ter­ests of the SABC and the South African pub­lic.”

Nd­abeni-Abra­hams’ spokesper­son, Ntha­be­leng Mok­itimi-Dlamini, said the min­is­ter would “com­mu­ni­cate” af­ter the mat­ter was re­solved.

“This is a mat­ter of na­tional in­ter­est and not a mat­ter of pol­i­tick­ing,” she said, adding that the min­istry would not re­spond to al­le­ga­tions from face­less sources.

ANC spokesper­son Pule Mabe de­nied the party had any strat­egy to col­lapse the SABC board, say­ing: “That is a sheer fig­ment of the imag­i­na­tion. We do not have such a pro­gramme.”

He said that “all hands are on deck” to save jobs at the SABC, adding: “The new min­is­ter must be al­lowed to set­tle in and do her job.”

DA com­mu­ni­ca­tions spokesper­son Phumzile van Damme said Par­lia­ment was clear that a skills and salary au­dit was needed be­fore any re­trench­ments, as well as a clear plan out­lin­ing how the broad­caster would sus­tain it­self.

“We have given the SABC un­til our next meet­ing to pro­vide this in­for­ma­tion,” she said.

“The fact that the SABC has in­di­cated that it will re­trench re­gard­less is un­set­tling, and in­dica­tive of a board that is un­able to do the ba­sics and stub­bornly in­tent on re­trench­ing staff with­out do­ing their home­work first.

“But I am also awake to the fact that the dis­so­lu­tion of the board could be used to ap­point an in­terim board for the du­ra­tion of the elec­tion, which will be at the beck and call of the ANC.”

Hannes du Buis­son, pres­i­dent of the Broad­cast­ing, Elec­tronic, Me­dia and Al­lied Work­ers’ Union, said the SABC board ap­peared to be a “law unto them­selves” and “re­spon­si­ble for the first full-blown strike in 20 years at the SABC”.

“This board has ab­so­lutely no com­pas­sion for SABC em­ploy­ees, whom they re­gard as num­bers – and no ap­pre­ci­a­tion and ac­knowl­edg­ment for highly trained pro­fes­sional broad­cast­ers,” he said.

ON A MIS­SION Stella Nd­abeni-Abra­hams

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