SABC cri­sis a ‘Hor­ror Show’ re­run

The broad­caster will only be saved from on­go­ing dis­as­ter when politi­cians are not in the script

Mail & Guardian - - News - Sekoet­lane Phamodi

When the famed meme and or­ganic in­tel­lec­tual Hlaudi Mot­soe­neng, who had given a face to the dec­i­ma­tion of the pub­lic broad­caster, was ejected from the SABC, many thought this would sig­nal that it was fi­nally turn­ing a cor­ner. But if we’ve been pay­ing at­ten­tion for these past 10 years, we know why no new dawn should be ex­pected.

For the bet­ter part of this past decade, the fawlty tow­ers at Auck­land Park has been the set of one of our great­est na­tional tragedies.

Ten years of en­croach­ment and then to­tal cap­ture of the SABC by cor­po­rate and po­lit­i­cal elites has all but brought the SABC to its knees.

This fol­lows a se­ries of sen­sa­tional pop­ulist de­ci­sions such as 70% “good” news, 90% lo­cal con­tent, a ban on cov­er­ing protests and the out­right (and il­le­gal) sale of this na­tional util­ity to its sin­gle biggest com­peti­tor, Mul­tichoice Africa.

The SABC is broke, again. Catas­tro-ph­i­cally so. It’s only three months shy of not be­ing able to pay salaries to more than 4 000 per­ma­nent and free­lance work­ers.

Never mind keep­ing up with de­liv­ery on its huge yet un­funded pub­lic man­date to in­form, an­a­lyse and re­flect dif­fer­ent views, and some of our favourite soaps — mon­eyspin­ners for the SABC — have faced clo­sure as a re­sult of this lat­est cash­flow cri­sis.

In a re­peat of the 2009 drama, the board asked for a life­line of R3-bil­lion to keep the on-air lights burn­ing and the elec­torate in­formed. Mind­ful of the des­per­a­tion of the broad­caster’s sit­u­a­tion, the board said re­trench­ment was the in­evitable course to the fu­ture sus­tain­abil­ity of the SABC.

Per­haps naively, or even em­bold­ened by the new­found in­de­pen­dence civil so­ci­ety groups SOS Coali­tion and Me­dia Mon­i­tor­ing Africa (MMA) re­cently won for it in court, the board played the open hand it was dealt a lit­tle too soon.

The board is now in­quo­rate and im­mo­bilised. The ninth min­is­ter of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and the gov­ern­ing party have emerged as he­roes among work­ers ahead of a gen­eral elec­tion promis­ing jobs, eco­nomic growth and sta­ble pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions.

Even with the pres­sure the pres­i­dent has put on get­ting the board quo­rate again, this lat­est fall­out doesn’t bode well for in­de­pen­dent­think­ing non-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tors who un­der­stand the ur­gent need to re­struc­ture the or­gan­i­sa­tion to adapt to the hos­tile mar­ket it op­er­ates in. At best we’ll get a mod­er­ately pli­ant board draw­ing sit­ting fees and keep­ing “re­trench­ment” out of its vo­cab­u­lary de­spite the fact that as many as a third of all em­ploy­ees are man­agers, and sub­stan­tially de­clin­ing rev­enue.

But those of us who’ve seen this show be­fore know ex­actly how it’s staged to end. One of trea­sury’s prin­ci­pal con­di­tions to the gov­ern­ment guar­an­tee it ex­tended to the SABC in 2009 was the sub­stan­tial scal­ing back of the op­er­a­tion and the shed­ding of staff.

Putting any dis­cus­sion of re­trench­ment into abeyance was Mot­soe­neng’s first order of busi­ness and, with the full back­ing of the Ben Ngubane board, he cut deals with unions that cheered him on as they de­ferred and then de­fied this and other cru­cial con­di­tions for a sus­tain­able turn-around.

Se­cu­rity of ten­ure and more wages be­came Mot­soe­neng’s pri­mary cur­rency to main­tain his le­git­i­macy in what had fast be­come a po­lit­i­cal power play with him in the star­ring role.

But some­one had to pay for this pipe dream, and this is how Mul­tichoice came to cap­ture and take con­trol of the SABC, as was re­cently found by the Com­pe­ti­tion Com­mis­sion af­ter the bitter court bat­tle cham­pi­oned by SOS and MMA.

To make good the il­lu­sion of a broad­caster in good health, the board, led by proven per­jurer Ellen Tsha­bal­ala, backed Mot­soe­neng’s de­liv­ery of the SABC into Mul­tichoice’s hands for a mea­gre R500-mil­lion over three years. The mar­riage was of­fi­ci­ated with much pomp and splendour by the bum­bling pro­fes­sor, Mbu­la­heni Magu­vhe.

In ex­change, Mul­tichoice got exclusive con­trol over the Madiba records in the SABC archives, which made up the en­tirety of the lu­cra­tive global Dstv chan­nel set up af­ter Nel­son Man­dela’s funeral.

Worse yet, Mul­tic­choice was given to­tal con­trol of the SABC’S pol­icy on dig­i­tal ter­res­trial tele­vi­sion (DTT) en­cryp­tion, pre­vent­ing any broad­caster from com­pet­ing fairly with the satel­lite broad­caster for ac­cess to premium con­tent, or any sub­scrip­tion ser­vice ever hop­ing to com­pete for a share of the mar­ket in South Africa. That’s pretty good value and a se­cure fu­ture for Mul­tichoice, which was un­bun­dled from mega-com­pany Naspers and re­cently listed on the JSE.

The cor­po­rate creep and cap­ture of our na­tional pub­lic broad­caster didn’t sud­denly hap­pen out of nowhere. It hap­pened right un­der our noses and in the care of the very same people who to­day claim to be its great­est cham­pi­ons.

It’s not just the delu­sional Mot­soe­neng who con­tin­ues to re­cite the myth that he res­cued the very SABC he de­stroyed. It’s the port­fo­lio com­mit­tee on com­mu­ni­ca­tions, which gave us one po­lit­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent board af­ter an­other and failed at ex­er­cis­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate level of over­sight.

It’s at least eight out of nine med­dling min­is­ters of com­mu­ni­ca­tions in nine years — Dina Pule and Faith Muthambi chief among them — di­rectly in­ter­fer­ing in the ex­ec­u­tive and oper­a­tional af­fairs of the SABC and squan­der­ing a once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity when DTT of­fered to breathe life back into our flail­ing broad­cast­ing and at­ten­dant sec­tors.

It’s a pres­i­dent whose ad­min­is­tra­tions, from 2008 to 2018, were char­ac­terised by noth­ing but greed and the ac­tive sale and col­lapse of the state. And it’s the tragedy of a on­ce­proud gov­ern­ing party that not once but twice de­liv­ered him to us.

Pretty early in my own ad­vo­cacy work to save our SABC, af­ter yet an­other dispir­it­ing SABC over­sight meeting in Par­lia­ment, a for­mer long-serv­ing group ex­ec­u­tive of the pub­lic broad­caster took me into his con­fi­dence on the way to the lift, amused by the ur­gency of my youth and my des­per­ate ap­peals for some­one to do some­thing.

“Sekoet­lane,” he told me, “I’ve been with the SABC a long time. They come, they go, and I al­ways re­main. Do you know why that is?” “No, sir,” I re­sponded. “It’s be­cause I un­der­stand that noth­ing will change here, un­less the whole sys­tem of ap­point­ing the SABC board is re­moved from party pol­i­tics. So, when all of these things are hap­pen­ing and all of you are writ­ing your state­ments, mak­ing noise, I just bide my time and I do my job.”

As I watch this re­peat drama with dis­may, I find my­self re­turn­ing to this cyn­i­cal ex­change in the nar­row hall­way to the lifts. It’s hard not to be cyn­i­cal when the pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions we rely on be­come the bat­tle­ground for po­lit­i­cal elites.

And harder still when the chaos they leave be­hind gives am­ple op­por­tu­nity for po­lit­i­cal ca­reerists to cul­ti­vate names and po­si­tions for them­selves, and as­pi­rant rent-seek­ers to ac­cu­mu­late.

If we’re pay­ing any at­ten­tion to this lat­est spat over the pub­lic broad­caster, we would see that we’re not turn­ing a cor­ner or ris­ing to a new dawn. It’s the same old hor­ror story played by a new cast.

Mean­while, the in­cred­i­ble work­ers at the SABC, who have been pum­melled by in­sta­bil­ity and the ever-im­mi­nent loss of their liveli­hoods, wake up ev­ery day and go to work, bid­ing their time and do­ing their jobs to keep us in­formed, ed­u­cated and en­ter­tained through it all.

It’s hard not to be cyn­i­cal when the pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions we rely on be­come the bat­tle­ground for po­lit­i­cal elites

Sekoet­lane Phamodi has worked on in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion rights is­sues in var­i­ous African coun­tries, in­clud­ing in South Africa as na­tional co-or­di­na­tor of the Save Our SABC Coali­tion

Delu­sion: The SABC dis­missed its chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, Hlaudi Mot­soa­neng (top) for break­ing the rules of his con­tract and for mis­con­duct. Fi­nan­cial and other trou­bles have plagued the pub­lic broad­caster for years. In 2009 (above) em­ploy­ees protested for a wage in­crease. Pho­tos: Made­lene Cronjé & Del­wyn Verasamy

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