NEWS & ANALYSIS

The "special case" queue gets longer daily

William Saunderson-Meyer on the financial troubles facing the SABC and CCMA

JAUNDICED EYE

They are “special cases”, every one of them. Every week they shuffle through the parliamentary committees and into the media spotlight, each one in turn wheedling for more.

Every ministry, every state agency, every over-staffed and under-performing creation of a government whose strongest raison d’être is the creation of jobs for pals and sinecures for cadres. They’re all there, plucking at the taxpayer sleeve, demanding more dosh, failing which the sky will fall and the Republic will be ruined.

This week it was the turns of the public broadcaster (SABC) and the Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). Both are in dire straits. The fans of both insist that if they are not bailed out, the world as we know it will crumble.

The SABC has been limping from bailout to bailout for half a dozen years. In 2018/19, it had a deficit of R444m and got a R3.2bn bailout. This past financial year it lost R511m and is on track to a R1.2bn loss in 2021. 

Almost 50% of the SABC’s revenue is spent on its 3,000 employees, who are paid (I hesitate to use the word earn)  R3bn a year. That staggering wage bill — a million bucks a year per person — is around four times what the equivalent private sector worker earns annually.  It’s also more than two-and-a-half times the R393,000 average annual public service salary.

A twist to the SABC’s woes is that its board understand that the headcount has to be cut but are repeatedly thwarted by the government that has appointed it and is cowed by the unions. The reluctance to trim the SABC is further encouraged by social activists who warn of the damage to democracy of crippling the public broadcaster — as if curbing a bloated, smug and protected payroll would do that.

SABC board chair Bongumusa Makhathini has spoken out, warning that job cuts are unavoidable if the broadcaster is to avert a collapse similar to that of the national carrier SAA or the state-owned arms maker Denel. But the most recent proposed retrenchment plan was abandoned on Wednesday, in the face of union threats of shutting down the service and the promise by the Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams that no job and losses would be tolerated and that the board would just have to find another solution.

Those concerned about the damage SABC cuts would do to its journalism will find scant support in the way that these journalists handled their own story. They immediately tried to elicit the support of the criminally charged African National Congress general-secretary Ace Magashule onside with some leading questions.

Magashule was asked what the ANC was going to do about the “jobs bloodbath” implemented at the broadcaster by “people earning R5.4-million per annum”. As the Mail&Guardian reports, “not needing a second invitation, the secretary-general went on to lambast the arrogance of the board”.

“I don’t know why some board members are so intransigent and I think they show some arrogance,” he said. “I don’t know why they are so arrogant. It’s clear what they want to do is to commercialise, privatise [the] SABC, which is against the ANC position.” 

Magashule — who is unequalled in his ability to hold onto a job — told the SABC in an interview that the ANC MPs were expected to fall in line and support Ndabeni-Abrahams in ensuring that no jobs were lost. The board, with its “ANC deployees” should be sure to do the same, warned Magashule.

Less clear cut than the SABC is the situation at the CCMA. To start with, despite its unpopularity among employers, who spend inordinate amounts of time dealing with often frivolous and vexatious CCMA actions instituted by disgruntled employees, it’s markedly more efficient and effective than most state entities. 

It’s a frugal operation, too, with a budget of barely a billion and fewer than a thousand employees. It relies heavily on private-sector labour practitioners who act as commissioners part-time, to process around 200,000 cases a year.

The CCMA has an unexpected champion in Democratic Alliance shadow Labour minister Michael Bagraim. Bagraim, who works with the CCMA all the time as a practising attorney, assures me that it’s the best-performing government entity that he’s come across. “It’s the shining jewel of the crown but over the past two years the Treasury has been steadily cutting its budget.” 

On top of stingy allocations in previous years, since February, the CCMA’s budget has been cut by R99m, with steeper cuts pencilled in of R170m and R231m for the next two years. To add insult to injury, the funds being cut this year are being diverted to bail out SAA, the government’s favourite financial albatross.

There is undoubtedly a strong case to be made for legislative changes to make it easier to hire and fire staff. Nevertheless, at a time that unemployment is soaring, the CCMA has played a vital role in saving jobs by mediating changes to conditions of employment to avoid retrenchments. This is a perverse moment that demand for the CCMA to have to suspend the services of 40% of commissioners and to close its doors to walk-ins from the public.

It seems that the CCMA lacks defenders in the Cabinet. Maybe it's a bit of an embarrassment? 

As Bagraim says, “Nothing falling under the Department of Labour works — the Unemployment Insurance Fund doesn’t work, the Compensation Fund doesn’t work. The only thing that works they are now going to destroy. Where’s the logic?”

He’s right. For once, there’s a government “special case” that deserves some sympathy. And it’s not the SABC.

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