How we tried to save the SABC

Former board member Suzanne Vos replies to Rhoda Kadalie

WITH REF:  "THE SABC: Run worse than a spaza shop", by Ms Rhoda Kadalie

Ms Rhoda Kadalie fired me as a long-standing friend and publicly called me a "sell-out" when in 2009 I accepted an invitation to be a member of the five-person SABC Interim Board charged with attempting to rescue the public broadcaster from its obvious trajectory of complete financial and ethical collapse.

The Interim Board, ably chaired by Ms Irene Charnley, found itself in a Corporation exhibiting all of the problems repeatedly articulated by Ms Kadalie.

Unlike Ms Kadalie, choosing to merely trenchantly construct public invective, we made an honest attempt throughout our six-month mandate to expose the incompetence and corruption with which we were confronted and to identify some possible solutions to obvious problems.

As a former journalist who served on the PC: Communications Committee for 15 years I was extremely familiar with the legislative and regulatory framework within which the public broadcaster must function. It was therefore astounding to see for myself how awful the situation really was.

Under the stewardship of a former post-1994 GCEO, Mr Peter Matlare and his team, the SABC had literally pumped revenue profits and had invested heavily in quality local content.  It was simply mind-boggling to see how dramatically the Corporation had been brought to its knees by GCEO, Adv. Dali Mpofu, and his team and a highly political board wracked by in-fighting.

Ms Kadalie and I clearly agree that public broadcasting in any democracy must serve the public interest and as set out in the Broadcasting Act 4 of 1999 the SABC should serve "... to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of South Africa".  All this and more.

Many excellent books have been written all around the world about how public audiences "consist not of consumers, but of citizens who must be "... educated, informed as well as entertained - in short, ‘served' - to enable them to better perform their democratic rights and duties..." (McCauley, Peterson, Artz, Halleck - M E Sharpe, Armonk, New York, London, England)

The Interim Board, armed with what appeared to be solid evidence of rampant corruption compiled by SABC unions and presented to Parliament immediately prior to our appointment, called in the Auditor-General to not only thoroughly investigate the allegations but to have a good hard look at the shambolic state of the Corporation's finances.

What we found was (a) the allegations had substance and (b) the entity was not a "going concern" and would soon not be able to pay the salaries of its many thousands of employees in what was obviously a ridiculously bloated bureaucracy. If that was not bad enough, suppliers had not been paid and in particular the producers and directors of local content being broadcast. Many local content providers had already been driven into bankruptcy and others were on the brink of same.

The SABC was also mired in various legal battles and BEE cadre tenderpreneur in-fighting over the spoils of huge contracts (for example the contract involving outside broadcasting vehicles) - a situation which continues to this day.

An employee whose appointment by the previous board to the critical executive post of Chief Operating Officer had been rejected by the "shareholder" (the Minister of Communications) had taken the SABC to court on a technicality and blocked any possibility of us filling that position with a competent person "fit for purpose" - a situation which continues to this day and which three previous Ministers over nearly five years to date have failed to effect the very simple legal solution required of them - to simply take the matter to Cabinet and for Cabinet to pronounce. This ball is now in the court of the recently appointed Minister Y Carrim and we must all await developments (yet again).

While all this was going on around us the Interim Board quickly realised Government was not going to "bail" the SABC out of it financial quagmire so as well as pouring over the books day and night and clamping down on wasteful expenditure, we had to pay off the GCEO to get rid of him (and avoid yet more protracted legal obstruction which was a certainty) and plead for permission to construct a Government Guarantee (of R1,473 billion) which would enable us to immediately borrow R1 billion rands from a financial institution on the back of strict Treasury guidelines (some of which have never been implemented including the need for a drastic reduction in the "head count" of the Corporation as executives and management have no appetite for confronting the need for retrenching staff identified as lacking required skills).

The Auditor-General meanwhile confirmed the substance of various serious allegations of corruption (and mismanagement) and recommended the Interim Board press criminal charges against persons identified - which we did at the local Brixton police station. To date the NPA has declined to prosecute many of these charges laid by the Interim Board and again by the 2010 board led by Dr Ben Ngubane following a further investigation into corruption conducted by the SIU.

The Interim Board handed over a fragile "going concern" to the Ngubane board in January 2010 (having secured a R1 billion loan from Nedbank) and after also having had to storm through the sales division unravelling the mess of incompetence and self-enrichment there and deconstruct the empire-building exercise of the former head of news and current affairs, Dr Snuki Zikalala, who had set up SABC offices around the world at vast expense and which were haemorrhaging unaffordable costs.

We uncovered, to our horror, a sports content contract with a foreign entity involving hundreds of millions of rands which had been signed in the French language and the domicilium of the contract was Paris! This had to be challenged and the 2010 board inherited this problem which the Interim Board could not resolve during its term of office.

Other international content costing hundreds of millions of rands had been acquired - much of which can never be aired for a multiplicity of reasons. Inept (and some highly questionable) negotiations by certain former executives had resulted in contracts for desired content (for example Hollywood movies) being tagged with a slew of old third-rate material. In broadcasting parlance this is called "buying a dog and getting the fleas as well". Not being able to broadcast much of the content "fleas" on our books resulted in SABC auditor's correctly noting asset "impairments" - another huge and ongoing problem.

Why am I writing this? Because reading Ms Kadalie's opinions, however valid, invokes both the rage and despair she evinces in myself!

Some of us had tried and failed, it is true, to properly solve the myriad structural and other problems which exist within the SABC. Some of us "in the belly of the beast" came face-to-face with the ugly reality of cadre deployment gone mad and the arrogance and incompetence of many (not all) of those deployed in critical positions of authority. Some of us to this day salute the many men and women who possess immense and rare skills who do their utmost to promote and protect public broadcasting from within the Corporation and who work diligently in difficult (to put it mildly) conditions.

On both the Interim Board and the 2010 board we battled against the "hidden hand" of ANC Alliance politics in action and at times destructive Ministerial interference (for example an edict placed in the Memorandum and Articles of Association of the Corporation that the Minister would have final say on all board Executive appointments). The resignation letters of former 2010 board members bear testimony to this fact.

So, to quote Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, so revered by certain of my former ANC/SACP/COSATU-aligned board colleagues, "What is to be done?" to get the SABC out of the dysfunctional mess it is in and when the Acting COO, Mr Hlaudi Motsoeneng, blatantly says the SABC will henceforth produce 70 percent "good" so-called "sunshine" news and current affairs programmes?

What is to be done when the SABC has launched a 24h news channel on a pay television platform which will cost hundreds of millions of rands to keep on air at a time of declining advertising revenues and in spite of business plans studied by the dissolved 2010 board which clearly showed the channel would not be financially viable for a very long time?

What is to be done when the ANC Alliance and specifically Luthuli House has now imposed what appears to be an all-inclusive ANC Alliance board of deployed cadres on the Corporation minus the odd "independent" non-ANC Alliance directors like myself who were included in previous boards?

To quote another favourite of ANC Alliance board members I have known, Karl Marx: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce".

We now know for sure that the new SABC board may well find themselves in a farcical situation where to their amazement (or not!) when they walk into the boardroom they find that Mr Motsoeneng, the Acting COO (aka Mr Sunshine), is in reality running the place and will not adhere to instructions.  Furthermore, that there will be absolutely nothing they can do about it unless the Minister intervenes (and will he?).

Some former board members are anxiously awaiting the report of the Public Protector (we were interviewed by her and her team in March just before Parliament dissolved the board) into various matters pertaining to the governance of the SABC and in particular to the appointment of Mr Motsoeneng and certain of his executive decisions involving the remuneration of staff (among other matters).

Few, including Ms Kadalie perhaps, take cognisance of the fact that the SABC board is a non-executive board and that it cannot interfere in any way whatsoever in operational matters however much this is necessary.  It can advise and be ignored by executives and management. QED.

The funding model of the SABC needs to be urgently addressed by Parliament as well as its governance structure.

Ms Kadalie is not the only person who states the obvious about the SABC but is it not time that she joins others like myself, for instance, in contributing to the work of the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition and others who also want to constructively "fix" the public broadcaster?

I stand accused by Ms Kadalie as a "so-called honourable member" (a reference to my being a former MP) of being "complicit in perpetuating the shambles that continue unabated in that institution..."

Well not now, obviously, but I have a clear conscience that I acted with honesty and integrity and with a certain degree of competence when I was a board member.

When in March our board was abandoned by our own Chairman and Deputy Chairman and the Minister of Communications and Parliament (when a clear board majority decided the Acting COO had to be removed from this executive position) Ms Kadalie may recall that I was the only woman left standing to go alone to Parliament and who had the intestinal fortitude (unlike others) to speak "truth to power" and spell out what was going on.

A little more than praising the management styles of spaza shops is needed to save the SABC from the antics of the self-serving ANC Alliance.

Suzanne Vos served on the Interim SABC Board from July to December 2009 and then on the SABC Board from 2010 until earlier this year. Before that she served as a Member of Parliament from 1994 to 2009.

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