South Africa’a public broadcaster SABC nears meltdown, ‘haemorrhaging (money) from every pore’, says Board member


Massive debts and a spate of top-level resignations have pushed South Africa's public broadcaster to near-collapse, threatening a network once styled as the voice of the country's democracy. The resignation of eight of the SABC's 12 board members as well as its chairman in recent weeks are just the latest in a string of scandals plaguing the debt-ridden broadcaster.

The board no longer has enough members to take binding decisions. Workers are on strike over a pay dispute, independent producers fume over lack of payment and a deadlock over how to proceed means no decisions are being taken at any level. "If the board does not function, the SABC does not function. The legal constraints and protection of its own statutes (mean) that if the board does not meet, the SABC literally grinds to a halt," said board member Alison Gillwald.

She was addressing parliament's communications committee, which on Thursday opened an inquiry into what committee chair Ismael Vadi termed a "lack of effective corporate governance." Gillwald said members had resigned in the middle of an incomplete audit process. The hamstrung board cannot now take decisions on salary increases or on critical expenditure for coverage of the 2010 football World Cup.

The SABC is crippled by over 800 million rand (US$98 million) in debt and is seeking a two billion rand cash injection from the government. Newspaper reports have outlined 40 million rand owed to producers, threatening to sink popular local soap operas, the network's bread-and-butter advertising vehicles. Even parliament seems unsure how to proceed, with the committee struggling to agree whether the enquiry should continue and where the blame lay for the rot at the SABC.

Television only came to South Africa in 1976 as the Calvinist apartheid government feared the medium's influence on its segregationist rule. Once TV arrived, the government used it purely as a propaganda tool. After the transition to democracy in 1994, the SABC became one of the most visible signs of the new nation, with a new cast of multiracial presenters broadcasting in all 11 official languages.

Now the SABC is accused of being a propaganda outlet for the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Around this year's elections, the network yanked a documentary about political satire that included cartoons of President Jacob Zuma. Similarly, a documentary on former president Thabo Mbeki never made it to air, while the network was outed in 2006 for blacklisting commentators critical of the government.

In 2008, scandal arose again when chief executive Dali Mpofu was suspended for insubordination, just hours after he had suspended the head of news as tensions rocked a heavily divided board. Shortly thereafter the previous administration sped through controversial legislation allowing government to dissolve the board, which would be appointed by the president and speaker of the National Assembly.

Mpofu, who also appeared before parliament this week, said the SABC was in a crisis of "the highest magnitude."

Opposition parties and the ANC were united in slamming the SABC for what they say is outlandish spending and failure to perform its function. Mpofu told the committee that protecting the jobs of the more than 4,000 SABC workers was vital. The workers were, he said, "sitting at a public institution on auto pilot, with no leadership."

Parliament will summon more board members to explain themselves so they could decide whether to dissolve the board, or appoint interim members to salvage the network. "It is haemorrhaging from every pore," Gillwald said. "It is unable to perform its basic duties."

What follows is an edited version of a statement from SABC :

« Over the last five years, the SABC has grown the local content budget from R230million to R1.1 billion. The SABC has seen the growth of local content on television in the last three years from ratios of 60% international: 40% local to 70% local: 30% international content at present.

Alongside that has been the growth of the independent production industry from 20 companies 2004 to 408 in 2009, as a consequence of the SABC’s strategic investment in the industry. The SABC sources 100% of it’s its local content from the independent producers except for sports and reversioning which is done in-house.

The SABC acknowledges the challenges faced by the industry, and acknowledges what is due to them. However, at this moment it is difficult for the public broadcaster to make a definitive commitment in terms of how much we can pay our suppliers each month. We are also working block-by-block to create more certainty to our local industry creditors. It is difficult for the SABC to make this commitment at this stage, as the corporation’s cash flow varies on a month to month basis.

In as much as we are facing a cash flow problem, we have however made inroads in trying to process payments due to our vendors in the Production Industry. Last month the industry was owed R129 Million by the SABC, and this amount has been reduced to R60 million. This clearly shows that we are gradually dealing with this issue. The SABC is in the process of finalising a payment plan which will soon be shared with the Industry, as agreed upon in a meeting held on 2 June 2009 between both parties.

Around the issue of systems and processes, the SABC acknowledges that proper systems and processes need to be in place in any organisation. Over the past five years, the organisation has invested in systems such as SAP, TVBMS and IPM, which are geared to assist with processes such as budgeting and commissioning.We acknowledge that there will be glitches, but the SABC is committed to perfecting all systems and processes in place.

The Corporation takes the issue of intellectual property quite seriously, which is why the SABC has funded research around this matter. A report was received in April with recommendations, and the report was shared with the Production Industry.We are expecting the Industry to interrogate this report, and the IP subcommittee exists to deal with these issues arising from the report.

An Indaba also needs to be finalized with all stakeholders such as the SABC, Production Industry and Government being involved to engage the matter.

It must be stressed that it is not the SABC’s sole responsibility to deal with this matter, but together with the Industry we need to approach government for assistance and guidance. Some of the issues raised in the memorandum are not the SABC’s responsibility and should be referred to the relevant stakeholders. These issues are:

Price fixing on actors and presenter’s fees (Actors and Presenters are not directly employed by the SABC but by the respective Production Companies); therefore this issue should be dealt with collectively by all affected stakeholders (Actors, Presenters, Musicians, Producers and the SABC )

A mandatory provision for Industry representation on the SABC Board (This matter should be referred to the Portfolio Committee on Communications in Parliament as they recommend the names of Board members to the Presidency and the SABC is not involved in the selection of Board members.)

The SABC supports the enquiry on a suitable public service broadcast model. However, it must be stated once again that the SABC is constantly delivering on its local content quotas as set by ICASA.

During the 4th quarter which was between January-March 2009, both radio and television continued to surpass the minimum requirement on local content quotas. For example, the ICASA quota is 55% for SABC 1 and 2, and 35% for SABC 3, in this regard SABC 1 had 75.01% for full day and 73% for prime time local content and SABC 2 was at 74.93% for full day and 88.49% for prime time local content respectively. In regards to SAB3, they performed at 46.50% for full day and 44.82% for prime time local content.

In closing, the SABC reaffirms its commitment to building a vibrant, growing and transforming production industry and appeals to the industry to assist the SABC in these trying times, because the SABC depends on the production industry, as equally as the industry depends on the SABC. The production industry must also give credit where it is due, and acknowledge the enormous work the SABC has done in the arena of promoting local content ».

(sources : various)