SABC: First prize in the lottery of public service

Douglas Gibson writes on the extraordinary salaries paid to employees of the public broadcaster

Do you remember the good old days when South Africa waited with bated breath every weekend to hear about the new millionaire created by winning the Lotto? That excitement has waned more than a little as winners became shyer about publicity. It is fascinating to note, though, that the SABC has made far more millionaires than has the Lotto.

Figures released recently carry the details of the breathtaking salaries earned by employees of the SABC. Since the SABC is broke, it means that you, the taxpayer will be required to come to the party and cough up some billions. Certainly, that is the case if Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams, the unions and certain political parties have their way.

Are you aware that 8 members of top management earn significantly more than President Ramaphosa? 8 top managers earn an average of R3.9 million per year. The Independent Commission for Remuneration of Public Office bearers has recommended that the president’s salary should go up to R3.08m for this year.

27 senior managers earn R2.1m a year, not much less than cabinet ministers who earn R2.4m. 374 middle managers earn R1.2m a year – whereas MPs earn R1.15m. 489 Junior managers earn almost a million a year – R998,000 each. The total of all these SABC-made millionaires is 889. The cost of all this is R1.024 billion per year.

That is, of course, not the end of it. 429 of the lowest paid staff earn an average of R464,000 each, per annum.

No one doubts that the SABC serves a useful, indeed, a vital service to the South African nation. Especially with services in the vernacular languages, millions are dependent on the SABC for information and entertainment. That should not end. Many people do not trust the SABC and the organisation will have to work hard to earn the support of the broad South African community. After the abuse of the Apartheid years, the brief flowering after 1994, before the return of political abuse under successive ANC cadres, one gets the impression that the SABC is trying hard to become the impartial public service that it is meant to be.

But having said that, is there any reason for this vastly top-heavy management structure? And is there any good reason why there should be hundreds of workers employed whose productivity must be, in all conscience, modest?

Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams – surely one of the weakest members of the Ramaphosa cabinet – keeps on rejecting proposals by the SABC board aimed at ensuring that the service at least breaks even. She, ably assisted by the unions, wants the board to come up with a “turn-around plan” to make the SABC profitable. For six months or more she has been insisting that there must be no retrenchments but she seems never once to have made any sensible suggestions.

The board, after months of deliberation and consultation, finally decided to proceed with some retrenchments. Under intense pressure from the minister and the unions, the board has split and withdrawn the retrenchment proposals for the moment.

It is a terrible time on the job market and one sympathises with all those affected. But if the only real alternative is more regular billion-rand bail-outs, paid for by the hard-pressed taxpayers, enabling the SABC to continue competing with the Lotto in making millionaires, then the solution and the “turn-around plan” become obvious. Although perhaps not to the unions and to Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com

This article first appeared in The Star newspaper.