SABC crisis: ‘There are political, commercial forces at play’

The former chairperson of the procurement committee of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) board, Andile Mbeki, has alleged there were “undeclared interests” by management in some of the tenders that came up for approval by the board.

While the SABC board approved tenders of more than R15-million, Mbeki claimed in his submission to Parliament’s communications portfolio committee this week that there was a general tendency by management to consistently split a tender “just to avoid subjecting its approval to the board.”

“These were often picked up by our internal and external auditors,” he said.

There was also a “general tendency”, said Mbeki, for companies and bidders to be shortlisted and presented to the board for approval without appropriate documentation.

Without pointing to specific examples, Mbeki claimed that management would in some cases strongly defend a losing bidder in a meeting. “Sometimes management would explain the history, equity and shareholding of the companies like inside partners of such companies,” he claimed.

Mbeki said in certain instances management would make a strong motivation for a bidder, even when there were bidders who could offer exactly the same services, and even better, with a much lower bidding price that fell within the SABC budget.

“Sometimes the recommended bidder would be R80-million more than the other bidder that could render exactly the same services,” he said.

When the board awarded a tender to one of the shortlisted bidders, which might not be the one recommended by management, Mbeki claimed management would sometimes argue that the board had no right to overrule their recommendation and would suggest the unsuccessful bidder might take the SABC to court.

“The unsuccessful bidder would take the SABC to court, exactly on the grounds advanced by the management,” he alleged. “Therefore each time SABC is taken to court, it must be read beyond the bidder’s complaint.”

Mbeki claimed management was often “quick to suggest the SABC must consider an out-of-court settlement by paying money to the losing bidder to get it off our back”, instead of challenging it in court.

“These tendencies have proven beyond any shadow of doubt that there are undeclared interests,” said Mbeki.

Former board member Kanyi Mkonza said in her submission to the inquiry that some of the largest tenders awarded by the SABC had been due for renewal since last year, but had been “delayed with the hope that the board would have been dissolved by the time the tender decision is made”.

Lawyer Christine Qunta, who served on both the previous and current board, told the Mail & Guardian the decision to dissolve the SABC board has absolutely nothing to do with trying to deal with the financial problems at the SABC.

“There are political and commercial forces at play here. There are politicians trying to get rid of the board, and business people who swirl around them and corrupt individuals within the SABC. These are the ones who are celebrating. The previous board embarked on a proper procurement process, which was implemented by the current board.”

SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said Parliament had heeded the call by top SABC executives to send all allegations, including those by Mbeki, to the auditor general for investigation.

The African National Congress on Wednesday submitted five nominations to serve on the interim SABC board for six months, said communications portfolio committee chairperson Ismail Vadi, who named these candidates as: telecoms veteran Irene Charnley; media personality and academic Philip Mtimkulu; public broadcasting specialist Libby Lloyd; advocates Leslie Sedibe and William Mokhare.

The Inkatha Freedom Party has nominated its former MP, Suzanne Vos, while other political parties are still to submit their formal nominations for the five-member interim board.

The candidates will be debated by the committee next week and the final recommendations will then be submitted to President Jacob Zuma, who has 10 days to respond.

Meanwhile, SABC union members are planning to strike over pay this weekend after the corporation’s application for an interdict against a strike was dismissed by the labour court.

The SABC averted last week’s proposed strike, which threatened a blackout of coverage of the Confederation Cup, after the court matter was postponed.

“The SABC will have to find a second SABC workforce to take our place if they think they can continue to broadcast and keep programmes on air,” said Hannes du Buisson, president of the Broadcast, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers’ Union (Bemawu).

The Communication Workers’ Union and the Media Workers’ Association of South Africa were granted permission to strike over a pay dispute by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, and have to give the SABC 48-hours’ notice of their intention to strike. Unions are balloting their members and Bemawu is set to go on a sympathy strike with the other unions.

“We are ready for any eventually. We really don’t have the money. Everybody in this country knows we have a cash-flow problem,” said Kganyago. “Our contingency plans are in place and we will make sure that the services will not be interrupted.”

The unions rejected the SABC’s offer of an 8,5% wage increase as they want 12,2%, which they say was promised in a three-year multi-term agreement to ensure labour peace during the elections, the Confederation Cup and the 2010 World Cup.

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