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SABC pleads for cash injection as digitilisation costs threaten new international channel

The SABC wants the government to fund its three-year funding shortfall of R2bn. by Jocelyn Newmarch. The SABC, in a strategy document that was due to be have been presented by its group CEO Dali Mpofu to Parliament in April, is suggesting that VAT levied on TV licence revenues be scrapped, that TV operators be required to pay licence fees and that the government contribute 50% of the funding required for a planned international news channel.

Without this funding, the annual strategy document says, the broadcaster will not be able to undertake the key strategic initiatives imposed by the government such as the digitalisation of broadcasting, preparation for the 2010 World Cup and the launch of the international news channel. Most of the SABC’s revenue is derived from advertising and licence fees.

A second meeting, proposed for May 30, was also cancelled. The result was that the document was distributed to parliamentarians but the contents were not discussed. The SABC was allocated R253m in the communications budget for 2008-09. The bulk of the money is earmarked for the digitalisation project, leaving its ambitions for SABC News International somewhat uncertain.

The SABC estimates it will spend R3.8bn on digitising TV signals and preparing for the 2010 World Cup. Digital terrestrial television (DTT) will be broadcast from November and promises to offer improved picture quality.

Very little detail is given about SABC News International, which is mentioned only once in the document. Despite the proposal that the government fund half its costs, it is unclear how much this would be.

Mpofu declined to comment on the document, as it had not yet been presented to Parliament’s communications committee. At this stage, there were no plans to present it but he said the SABC’s plans for digitalisation were still on track.

Dene Smuts, the Democratic Alliance spokeswoman on communication, described the document as extremely messy and unsatisfactory — “almost as though someone was thinking aloud”. She said the document supported SABC chairwoman Khanyi Mkonza in her dispute with Mpofu, as the group chief executive is responsible for the presentation to Parliament.

Despite the technological challenges the SABC faces this year, the former head of technology, Sharoda Rapeti, who resigned a year ago, has still not been replaced “What I would have liked to know is whether the capital expenditure plan is still in place,” said Smuts. She said the plan, which was intended to deal with the switch to digital technology, had been developed when Vincent Maphai chaired the board. Maphai’s term ended in 2003.

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