Mpofu’s Vast Vision

“The strategy here is so huge that it’s irrelevant what happens with us and MultiChoice,” says Dali Mpofu. It’s the statement of a man with full confidence in the power of the organisation he directs. On the date of the interview Mpofu has been group chief executive of the SABC for a little over 100 days – his public relations machine has been trying, unsuccessfully, to pitch this apparent milestone to the mainstream media – but already he has a plan to take the broadcaster into Africa on a scale that his predecessors barely dreamed of. “Huge” is easily the word for it.

What the new boss is proposing are two channels, one news and one entertainment, each incorporating bespoke programming for the language clusters, economic blocs and cultural groups across the length and breadth of the continent. The long-term goals are manifold: to become the 24-hour first-choice information source for all Africans; to create and support a worldwide market for African film and TV drama; to work with the African Union and Nepad in realising the aspirations of the African renaissance.

That dismissive line on MultiChoice is a reference to how Mpofu aims to deliver this vision. The continent-wide pay TV operation is not his first choice – it is, as he says, “the easy option”. He points to the deal that’s already in place with MultiChoice, on SABC Africa, which for the moment “is still a division inside the SABC’s news department”. With MultiChoice carrying SABC Africa to viewers on the continent through its presence in 48 countries, all the public broadcaster has to do is package the content. It’s an agreement that comes to an end in 2008, and although discussions are now in progress around expanding it to allow for the new strategy, Mpofu’s almost hoping a settlement isn’t reached.

“My own view is that we should take the difficult route and forge partnerships on the continent,” he says. “We can’t be dependent on pay TV, which reaches a very small and rich audience. We would like this to be a mass-based offering.”

Clearly, with a little over 300,000 subscribers in total across the continent [see feature, page—], the MultiChoice option hardly measures up to the immensity of the model Mpofu has in mind. The partnerships he is ideally seeking are with Africa’s terrestrial public broadcasters. And it’s not just the numerous single agreements (in place of an all-encompassing one) that makes this the tougher route; to arrive at each of the single deals Mpofu will first have to pick his way through an intricate web of political sensitivities.

Mpofu acknowledges that anti-South African sentiment is prevalent across the continent, that there’s a strong backlash to what is perceived as a brash new imperialism. So he’s “mooted the idea of an advisory body”, which, he hopes, will give him insight into the complexities. Aleady he’s brought a number of academics into the process, professors from Ghana, Cameroon and Zimbabwe. “We will use these people as a springboard, they are sensitive to the agendas. The last thing we want is to be seen to be promoting a South Africanism. This must be African.”

He adds, however, that there’s at least something to be said for the idea’s South African origins. “It’s easier for us than it would be for a BBC. That doesn’t mean it will be plain sailing, but we do have an element of credibility. That’s our unique selling point, we are Africans ourselves. An Al Jazeera or CNN does not have that element.”

It’s plain what’s framing most of Mpofu’s thinking here. He’s not about to be coy about it either, driving the point home repeatedly throughout the interview. “One of the key corporate goals for this organisation is assisting with the African renaissance and Nepad,” he asserts. He indicates that the advisory body should help him get the necessary buy-in from the governments and business sectors of the individual African countries, but that the buy-in of the African Union is what he’s ultimately after.

So how involved is President Mbeki in the vision? If Mbeki didn’t have anything to do with it directly, surely the pan-African angle would strongly appeal to him? “I’m meeting with [Mbeki] next week, when I’ll raise it,” says Mpofu, “and yes, it should appeal to him.” On the issue of whether a head of state ought to meddle in the affairs of a public broadcaster at any level, Mpofu is adamant there would be no benefit to Mbeki’s exclusion. “We could bypass the president if we wished, but that would not make good business sense.” In Mpofu’s favour it’s got to be said – should Mbeki like what he sees – that there’s no better man on the continent to sell it to the African Union.

Continuing with the place of the African Union and Nepad in the strategy, Mpofu says he’ll be choosing “pilot” countries from amongst those African states that submit to the continental peer review system. “We’ll showcase this in countries where we’re least likely to get problems,” he says. He’d rather not commit himself to exact examples at this stage – he’s wary, he says, of giving offence to those that aren’t earmarked – but he offers a bit more than a clue: “The SABC has already established news bureaus in Senegal, the DRC and Nigeria. Those would be some of the places.”

That’s how he plans to do it then, but can he be more specific on what exactly it is he’s planning to do? Although full details will not be released until final approval from the Minister of Communications, the SABC board and “the shareholder” (government), Mpofu appears to be relatively clear on the question.

There are three elements to his strategy. The geographic element specifically concerns the 24-hour news channel, where Africa’s different time zones will be catered for. Secondly, the news channel will need to put out content relevant to the various economic blocs, and Mpofu intends “to take account of them all”. The final element concerns both the news and the entertainment channel, and accommodates the continent’s languages. Initially, says Mpofu, the channels will be broadcast in English, French and Portuguese, according to the regions where these colonial languages are spoken. “The long term strategy must be to use indigenous languages,” he adds.

As indicated, Mpofu is keeping an eye on the models of international news networks like CNN, so it can reasonably be expected that the branding and breakdown of the SABC African network will be similar – as with the tailored content on CNN Turkey or CNN Japan, SABC East Africa will be in English and Kiswahili, say, or SABC West Africa in French. Although countries like Nigeria are problematic in the last instance, maybe that example is big enough to warrant its own English translation.

Of course solutions like these demand piles of ready cash. Mpofu admits that the question of funding is a huge one, and points to the entertainment channel as part of the answer. Conceding that the cash in the SABC’s coffers off its latest results is not nearly enough – the profit of R273-million for the 2004/2005 financial year was the biggest in the corporation’s history – he emphasises that a local content model in each of the regions can make the venture sustainable.

“In South Africa we saw, at the beginning, that advertisers were very sceptical about local content. But now those are the shows bringing the bucks, that’s what has brought us to profitability. If we develop a model like that for the African markets, it will work.”

The South African shows he’s talking about are the likes of Generations and Yizo Yizo, which have drawn strong interest across Africa. Says Mpofu: “We’ve found our dramas to be quite popular on the continent, because of the quality. Generations, for example, is very popular in Nigeria.” But while selling more of South Africa’s home-grown dramas into African markets is another immediate way to finance the broad strategy, Mpofu says “the long term solution would be to assist in building the [production] infrastructures” of the countries themselves. “Whatever we do in those countries, we must focus on their own quality local content rather than pumping them full of South African content.” A key benefit he sees to this approach is the development of a much bigger market for African films and drama, and he intends to bring control of such a market back to Africa. “Look at Burkino Faso’s films right now, the rights belong to somebody in the US.”

The way Mpofu puts it all together, the strategy does seem to make a lot of sense. But that doesn’t mean the immensity of it is any less mind-boggling. What is the exact figure on a project like this? “It’s very early to give figures,” he says. “We will take the incremental approach. In my view, even if we said we needed US$1-billion, we don’t need that in a big bag right now. The issue is, how much will be self-funding and how much will need baby sitting?”

Okay, so there’s another key question – who will be doing this baby sitting? Mpofu’s candour comes through again. “Obviously there will be strong government assistance.”

All said, not what one would expect from the chief executive of the SABC. He’s laid it on the line, hasn’t been at all cagey about what he’s planning to do with his tenure. Some might say he’s been too bold, set himself up for what could potentially be a disastrous and career-ending failure. But he just hammers it home again. “By early next year we will roll out a concrete plan. For me, this is one thing I will see through.”

More from Mpofu on—

Local content

“Now it makes business sense in its own right to do local content, it’s no longer because there are quotas—our next year-end results will see an 80 percent versus 20 percent split in favour of local content, we are currently on 35 percent foreign.”

The competition

“The South African commercial players are not really competition to us in Africa, if the truth be told. If something does not make sense to their shareholders, they can’t do it. Our shareholder is government, and our government is committed to the African solution.”

Transformation

“Yes, that’s very close to my heart. The appointment of six women at the top level is something I’ve done in my first 100 days—It’s not just about transforming ourselves, it’s also about transformation of the entire production industry.”

Snuki Zikalala

“My job includes being editor-in-chief. If I thought the editorial policies were being abused, I would not hesitate to act. A person asked me last week if a cabinet minister sits with us when we compile the news, maybe we need to deal with those false perceptions.”

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Kevin Bloom
Guest Author

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