SABC teetering on the brink of collapse - SACP

Party calls on the newly appointed interim board to act decisively

SABC teetering on the brink of collapse:

A call to the newly appointed interim board to act decisively  

The South African Communist Party (SACP) welcomes Parliament’s rapid finalisation of the nomination of five members to an SABC interim board. We urge President Jacob Zuma to formally appoint them as soon as possible.

The SACP further congratulates the Parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee that investigated the governance decay at the SABC. ANC MPs performed very well during the committee’s proceedings and the SACP is looking forward to similar principled resoluteness on all other matters as this contributes significantly to restoring the confidence of our people in the ANC. After years of extreme abuse by successive incompetent boards and a mix of corrupt and incompetent executives our national public broadcaster is teetering on the brink of collapse.

With just six months to lay the foundations for the SABC’s recovery, the five nominees – Khanyisile Kweyama (chair-designate), Mathatha Tsedu (deputy chair-designate) Krish Naidoo, Febe Potgieter-Gqubule and John Matisonn – need to take control urgently and begin an extremely challenging task.

After a brief post-1994 flowering as South Africa’s public broadcaster, the SABC has struggled to sustain its role as our country’s most trusted source of broadcast news and entertainment. Successive boards and senior managers sought to transform it into a market-driven, commercial operation. With the emergence of Hlaudi Motsoeneng as the de facto power at the SABC in 2012, its slow decline accelerated into free-fall, as widespread looting, financial incompetence and the total collapse of anything recognisable as good governance vanished from its sprawling Auckland Park headquarters.

Its financial resources have been looted and wasted to the extent that its monthly costs – including its wage bill – are today greater than its financial reserves. And, because it now costs more to operate than it makes, those reserves are not being replenished:

- Under current acting CEO James Aguma it continues to pour its dwindling reserves into paying for a range of what may well be illegal contracts of no benefit to either the SABC or to the people of our country. It currently pays as much for TV licence fee collection as it receives (if not less than that) in licence fee income! If it simply stopped collecting licence fees, it would be no worse off. This is what Aguma has driven it into.

- The SABC’s contract with monopoly pay-TV operator Multichoice was trumpeted as the solution to the SABC’s financial challenges by Motsoeneng and former chairperson Mbulaheni Maguvhe. But to provide the news channel and other components demanded of the SABC by Multichoice costs the SABC more than what Multichoice pays the SABC for its news channel, the exclusive use of its archives, and the re-broadcast of its three TV channels. It is worth noting that, although the SABC channels on Naspers’s Multichoice DStv account for a third of DStv’s audience – and thus of DStv’s R20-plus billion annual income - DStv paid a fraction of this (about 1%) to the SABC. The SABC, and thus the people of South Africa, are subsidising the apartheid-era Naspers via its subsidiary Multichoice and therefore boss Koos Bekker’s massive broadcasting monopoly.

- The SABC’s audiences – once loyal and comprising a large majority of South Africans – have deserted the public broadcaster in their millions. They have not deserted the SABC because better private sector competitors have emerged, but because under Motsoeneng and his allies, the SABC’s content has become steadily worse. Only those with no choice at all continue to listen to and watch its stations and channels. And those who have left have taken their licence fees with them.

The challenge facing the interim board is thus enormous. It has to:

- Undo the damage wrought on our public broadcaster by five years of savage abuse by Motsoeneng and his allies, and by more than a decade of self-serving and ideologically ill-considered attempts to transform the public broadcaster into a free-market icon.

- Bring back sound and Constitutionally-aligned corporate governance into an organisation corrupted by incompetent and self-serving executives and directors – assisted by a Minister of Communications more interested in getting her own way and protecting her allies than in either the Constitution, the law, or survival of the public broadcaster.

- Find and appoint professional and competent strata of executive managers to replace the SABC’s damaged and depleted post-Motsoeneng, post-Aguma, Group Executive and senior management corps.

- Recreate SABC news as a trusted, accurate and reliable source of information and analysis for South Africa’s people.

- Create an environment sufficiently stable to win back the hundreds of hard-working, competent programming staff members who have been retrenched, fired or simply grown too tired of the corruption and incompetence to stay at the SABC. The SACP recognises that hundreds of the remaining staff (probably a majority) are equally hard-working and honest, but years of mismanagement and the surging corruption and contamination of the past five years have left them de-motivated and leaderless.

- Review and reverse illegal and otherwise improper contracts – the Multichoice and licence fee collection contracts are just two among dozens.

- Recover the hundreds of millions of Rands improperly paid out under Motsoeneng and others, and illegally wasted on dozens of court cases to protect Motsoeneng and other individuals illegally appointed to senior positions at vastly inflated salaries.

- Reverse the many illegal executive managerial appointments made in the past five years – and recover the money illegally paid out on the basis of those appointments.

- Develop new strategic and implementation plans to enable the SABC to fulfil its statutory mandate as the country’s trusted public broadcaster, particularly for those unserved in their home languages by other broadcasters.

These are essential activities and must be undertaken.

But the interim board will have to embark on and complete in six months this programme of action to save the SABC without the money it needs. And it will have to do so in the face of fierce resistance from beneficiaries – inside and outside the SABC – of the polluted processes and activities introduced by Motsoeneng and others. It could also face resistance from the hundreds of honest SABC workers fearful of mass retrenchments under an interim board. Aguma has already begun to fan these fears with warnings of mass retrenchments, implying that the blame must be placed at the door of Parliament and others attempting to reverse the destruction of our public broadcaster.

It should be noted here that the five interim board members are part-timers, several of whom have full time jobs outside of the SABC. They are not paid salaries but “board fees” payable only for board meetings they actually attend.

The SACP and the Alliance have been mobilised to provide political support for the interim board by concern for the SABC and by the revelations of corruption and mismanagement by the parliamentary inquiry into the SABC under the Maguvhe and (Ellen) Tshabalala boards.

But the incoming board will also need a rapid injection of financial resources. The logical source for this is a guarantee from National Treasury – much as the first interim board under Irene Charnley in 2010 secured a Treasury guarantee, to enable it to borrow from the banking sector. The Charnley interim board took much of its six months in office to negotiate that Treasury guarantee. With the SABC in real danger of financial collapse, the nominee Kweyama interim board will need money more quickly than that.

Parliament has recognised this – MPs referred to the interim board appointment as “an unenviable task” and “a poisoned chalice”. But the Kweyama interim board will need more than Parliamentary sympathy: it will need concrete Parliamentary support to get Treasury’s backing for a turn-around at the SABC, and to keep the public broadcaster alive while the save-SABC strategy is developed.

Any Presidential delay in appointing the interim board will be seen by many as an attempt to delay the inevitable action against Motsoeneng and his allies, and to support Communications Minister Faith Muthambi’s ongoing attempt to provide cover for Motsoeneng and to maintain her influence at the SABC.

The SACP therefore calls for fast and decisive action to save the SABC and to support the interim board.

Statement issued by the SACP, 17 March 2017