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SABC International goes down the tube

Here’s an Mbeki-era legacy which needs a Zuma-type plan to fix. The legacy is SABC International, an ambitious programme which held that Africa does not need the CNNs of this world to tell the African story. Africans, or rather, South Africans, would do it.

News tsar Snuki Zikalala was given the task of setting up what would be the pride of Africa, eventually creating 13 news bureaux on five continents to give us a voice.

Hundreds of millions of rands have been sunk into set-up and running costs, with SABC International now a huge drain on the SABC’s financial resources, it being one of the reasons the broadcaster wants a bailout from the government.

I was keen to see for myself this vision gone awry and to understand just how much of a basket case SABC International is.

SABC International was intended to run on the DStv platform, but through a long and sorry saga, it is not there. It has an outlet in Washington on a cable network, but outside this you can see it only on Sentech’s Vivid platform, or after 1am when SABC2 has shut down for the night.

Vivid appears to be as hopeless as SABC International itself. After you have bought your decoder for about R1 400, the content is free — but this is pretty much limited to SABC International and 15 religious programmes. It reaches just 50 000 households, a pathetic 0,5% of South African television households.

Vivid has no website and the call-centre options, which I accessed from the Sentech website, did not include a Vivid option. I guessed one and was put through to a salesperson who told me that Vivid was not available because of software issues. He said I could buy a decoder through Junk Mail.

The call centre mailed me a list of re-sellers, but none was able to supply a decoder and had not had it in stock for months. They seemed unconcerned as to when it might be available again. I sense that Vivid, too, has been a market failure, even though Sentech maintains that it has met its requirement of bringing television to under-serviced areas.

SABC was clearly betting that SABC International would be on the DStv platform, but after about two years of talks, it has yet to strike a deal with MultiChoice.

SABC International’s champion, Zikalala, who has left the SABC, told me that MultiChoice was always keen on including the news channel. He blamed the group executive at the SABC, led by former chief executive Dali Mpofu, for the failure to conclude a deal to this effect.

Zikalala said that all MultiChoice wanted in exchange for a spot on DStv was access to one-year-old documentaries which were gathering dust on the shelf. He said while Multi-Choice wanted a news channel, the SABC group executive wanted an entertainment and news channel and negotiations broke down.

The result was that SABC International was all dressed up, with 13 news bureaux, including in Washington, New York, Jamaica, London, Brussels, Sao Paulo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Harare, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya and China, but had nowhere to go in terms of an audience to access its news.

Zikalala told me the channel has the best journalists, but a ­colleague who reviewed the offering for Multi-Choice said that the coverage was dreadful and while the SABC had all these far-flung reporters, they seemed to do little or no coverage themselves.

Perhaps not surprisingly now, the SABC is more than a little coy in telling us what this adventure has cost and continues to cost.

I asked DA and ANC members of the portfolio committee on communications, after the SABC made a submission to it, what contribution SABC International was making to the financial malaise. Neither party knew the answer. Likewise, inquiries at the ministry of communications produced the same result.

The SABC’s submission tells us that it wants the government to pay half the costs of running SABC International. It has asked the department of communications and the treasury for this, but this has been declined. We are not told how much is involved.

The now defunct Empire magazine reported in March 2008 that SABC International had operating costs of R200-million a year.

Zikalala told me that costs were not that high. He said he thought he had the costs on his cellphone and would SMS them to me. He wrote: “We spent about R694[-million] of a budget of R602[-million]. The bureaux budget was R35[-million] and we spent R43[-million].”

He also said that he did not want to spoil his relationship with the SABC.

Zikalala said that Robin Nicholson, the SABC’s chief financial officer, did not include a budget for SABC International in the SABC’s projections because he thought it should be closed down. But members of the board thought differently.

MultiChoice said that discussions with the SABC are continuing, although they have been delayed by having to wait for the new board. My sense is that it does not particularly value SABC International’s offering, as it has a number of channels that cover the African story.

The treasury also said that discussions with the SABC are continuing.

Ismail Vadi, the head of the portfolio committee, and the department of communications referred inquiries to the new SABC interim board chairperson, Irene Charnley. Charnley did not return my calls.

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