Static as channels change at SABC

The SABC is in the midst of a tortuous transition that is testing staff, top management and the board to the limits of patience and endurance, writes Marion Edmunds

UNTIL recently, the bust of former Broederbond leader and SABC board chairman Piet Meyer graced the foyer of the SABC in Auckland Park. nnnNobody thought it incongruous that Meyer—one of the men responsible for building the SABC into a National Party propaganda machine—should still hold his head up high at the gateway of the SABC, an institution with the power to reach into the hearts and minds of millions.

But slowly, as the wheels of change began to grind in the SABC in response to political changes in the country, the bust gave ground and retreated—inch by inch—into a dark corner of the foyer, full of plastic ivy.

Near election time, it was quietly removed altogether.

By then, SABC staffers were preoccupied with undoing Meyer’s legacy and remoulding the SABC to reflect the new national realities, without losing their jobs to affirmative action appointments or returned exiles. The first waves of retrenchments of old staffers had broken, the first “affirmative action” appointments had been made, and the sands were shifting under everybody’s

By the time the new SABC board was appointed—just before the April elections last year—change had become an obsession and paranoia pervaded Auckland Park.

However, the appointment of the board did give the transformation process impetus and direction.
After deep soul-searching, the board handed over its vision to the newly appointed chief executive, Zwelakhe Sisulu, to drive change from the top.

Sisulu’s position has been an unenviable one. One of his most important tasks, when he took up his job in October last year, was to set in motion a process that would eventually change the racial and gender composition of the staff so that it represented the demographics of South Africa.

This he had to do without frightening white staff, or stripping the SABC of its expertise. Latest statistics reveal that progress has been comparatively slow: after a year, only a quarter of the SABC’s current staff are black.

Between 1990 and 1995, the number of white employees dropped by 12 percent and the number of black employees rose by nine percent.

Sisulu admits that the job has been more difficult than he expected, but nonetheless is optimistic about getting the SABC right for future generations.

He and his team are also trying to change the SABC so that it serves all South Africans, in 11 languages. They want the organisation to promote national reconciliation. And further, they want to improve the SABC so that it becomes a “world-class organisation” which can compete with private broadcasters and earn revenue.

A mighty task—and already SABC staffers and unions are complaining that the organisation lacks decisive leadership to see these changes through.

Sisulu’s task is bedevilled by the immensity of his empire. The corporation, which employs about 5 000 people, is an enormous operation, broadcasting sport, drama, news, entertainment, and educational programmes in 11 languages. It has both public broadcaster and commercial components.

Structurally, the SABC is impossible to manage because it was sliced into business units in the late Eighties and has become a labyrinth of empires and alliances—some small, some large, some politically correct and some reactionary—run by middle and senior managers who are fighting for their personal survival and a seat on the gravy train.

There is also a tradition of poor communication within the SABC, and a cult of dissatisfaction among junior staff. They feel neglected and under-valued.

They constantly blame the newcomers—Sisulu and subsequent appointees—when things go wrong.

Sisulu defends himself on the count of poor leadership. He said that he was unable to move for the first six months of his appointment because the SABC had to wait until the Independent Broadcasting Authority had made recommendations on its restructuring.

Secondly, he said, he had to build up a team around him before he had the means to implement change. This meant retrenching a number of “the old guard” and training new staff at the top. R45-million has been spent in the past financial year on retrenchment packages.

Sisulu has further to defend the corporation against accusations of bias towards the ANC. It does not help that Sisulu is closely connected to the party through his own political past and that of his family. Nor that many of the new people appointed to top positions supported the ANC’s cause openly during the struggle years, and are seen as belonging to a political camp.

To his credit, Sisulu’s independence has been recognised by both old and new SABC managers, as well as commentators outside the SABC.

There is another allegation that riles Sisulu. Hans Dieter, the head of the largest SABC union, BEMAWU, said this week: ” Because the executive can’t take decisions, they have to refer problems constantly to the board for approval ... the board is meddling too much.”

It is ironic that the criticism levelled at board chair, Dr Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, is similar to the criticism levelled at Piet Meyer in the 1960s.

Casaburri says the board is not apologetic about taking a keen interest in the SABC’s daily life.

The evidence is there: the board has set up committees with top management to discuss aspects of the corporation’s life. When asked for documents on transformation, SABC spokesmen said that they are with the board—and are confidential. Casaburri, herself, is run off her feet with SABC business and sources say the board goes as far as approving or vetoing certain appointments.

Casaburri justifies the board’s intervention by saying that it was forced by practical and political circumstances to take a lead in changing the SABC.

“Now that the board policies are largely in place, and that the board and management understand each other, the board is playing a less active role in the day-to-day running of the SABC ... However, the board remains convinced that it needs to make decisive inputs to keep the SABC on track,” she said.

On track? Is there a chance that the SABC could derail, because of the pressure for change, from inside the corporation, from the board, the public and from political leaders who want to see the New South Africa on their screens and hear it on the airwaves?

The gloomiest of the SABC staff say that there is a chance that the wheels will come off; the optimistic new management say that everything will stay on course, but admit that it is a daily struggle

It’s still too early to say whether the SABC is fulfilling its mandate as a public broadcaster and whether it is responding to South Africans, giving them what they want rather than what the SABC thinks they need.

The English-speaking radio station SAfm provides the most significant example of change in the SABC. In the face of passionate opposition, it recast itself in a New South African mould, but failed to pick up the listeners it wanted and lost thousands of the listeners it had.

Latest statistics reveal that black listenership has dropped over the last year from 86 000 to 17000 and that overall listenership had dropped in the same period from 393 000 to 231000.

SAfm’s failure to interest the public in its changes frightens the SABC, particularly those anticipating the opening of the airwaves next year. Concern about competitiveness has prompted the corporation to start an ambitious training plan, partly funded or provided by foreign broadcasting corporations in Australia, Britain and Canada.

Highly-placed sources say they doubt whether the SABC—which has never known cut-throat competition—can be jacked up in time. They doubt that there will be enough money to implement the board’s vision, and the SABC will be casting about for revenue.

It’s for this reason the SABC’s group executive wants to ask the government for a R500-million annual subsidy—; a proposal not yet officially stated, but causing alarm that the SABC might, through its financial dependency, have to answer to the whims of national politicians, rather than to the people’s needs.

This sort of scenario brings back the past of the SABC in a rush—the curse of National Party dominance, of political intervention in public broadcasting which has thwarted many African public

Managers, such as TV training head Gary Alfonso, assure sceptics this will not happen here. “It’s different now ... journalists, editors and managers now do not believe that politicians are correct and are not prepared to be dictated to.”

Head of CCV Molefe Mokgatle says there is a new culture of independence and creative risk-taking in the corporation that will prevent such politicisation.

One of SABC’s strategic thinkers, David Niddrie, cites controls, checks and balances in the SABC that would prevent political lobbies controlling the corporation.

And both Sisulu and Casaburri have given their word that they have driven the ghost of Piet Meyer from the SABC forever—; and that no other monster will be allowed to take his place.

Next week: Eskom gives power to the people

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