/ 21 June 2009

SABC ‘haemorrhaging from every pore’

Massive debts and a spate of top-level resignations have pushed the South African Broadcasting Corporation 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 chairperson 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 chairperson 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 Soccer World Cup.

The SABC is crippled by over $800-million in debt and is seeking a R2-billion cash injection from the government.

Newspaper reports have outlined R40-million 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 African National Congress. 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.” – AFP