SABC board ‘out to lunch’

Transformation at the SABC seems complete. Where, before 1994, it was the mouthpiece of a ruling party that paid its own bills, it is now the mouthpiece of a ruling party that must dip into the public purse to keep it going.

It seemed for a while, after 1994, that all would be different. Very capable people, both editorial and commercial, were employed at the new-look SABC.

The promise was of editorial quality and commercial sustainability. But, one by one, the quality journalists and managers left. The broadcaster descended into an editorial and financial quagmire.

Post-1994 we have seen a flourishing of writing, music and other arts. South Africans have celebrated their culture as never before. But the SABC has been absent from these celebrations. Where it could lead, it has not even followed.

With vast resources and monopolies in key areas, you would think that, just occasionally, it would come up with a compelling piece of journalism, a talked-about series or a must-watch show.

I have long since stopped watching SABC but I am available to catch its programming on the recommendations of others. The recommendations never come.

News tsar Snuki Zikalala oversaw an ambitious empire which had pretensions of taking on the likes of CNN and Al Jazeera. The SABC spent big — R1-billion or so — on this vision, but did not think to secure a platform that would give it an audience of any real size.

They will tell you that SABC News International, to give its full title, had a business plan. Based on a conversation I had with Zikalala, it did not extend to working out where the commercial support would come from. His focus was content. Other people would bring in the revenue.

It seems to have been no more than “MTN will advertise”, but it appears that it was not worked out who would pick up the phone to invite MTN and others to do that.

Zikalala is seen widely as the cause of the train wreck that is the SABC. He is said to have had too much power and an unlimited cheque book. This was never my impression. Zikalala is astute in the machinations of corporate life and will have made sure that all key decisions had board support.

Now Irene Charnley has been brought in as the interim chairperson to try to get the train running again. She has a union background, but as an MTN executive she has achieved spectacular success. She recently cut her ties with MTN, where she ran its African operations, pocketing R1-billion for her trouble.

MTN has succeeded spectacularly on the continent, so presumably she is up to the job of chairing the SABC out of its mess. Her first priority has been to pay suspended chief executive Dali Mpofu to go away. Mpofu reportedly received a bonus in December of R2,1-million for 2008.

Now, in terms of the settlement, he will get R6,7-million based on what he would have earned if he served out his contract, R2,1-million to cover his legal fees and a R4,4-million restraint of trade so that he does not take his expertise to a rival. The total cost to the SABC includes a R5-million legal bill which the SABC has to foot. If there are problems at the SABC, from what I read, he says he is not to blame.

The SABC, meanwhile, is so broke that it did not have money to stump up the R4,4-million to keep Mpofu from competing with it. The department of communications will pay. Hooray.

But don’t blame Zikalala or Mpofu. Blame the board who put them in and allowed them to run the place into the ground.

More to the point, blame the ruling party for preferring patronage from the broadcaster above independence. If Charnley can do just one thing — re-establish the conditions that attracted quality journalists to go to work for the SABC after 1994 — she would have succeeded admirably. She will need President Jacob Zuma’s backing. Will he support the transformation of the SABC into a proud institution that can hold its head high?

Meanwhile, spare a thought for Mpofu. The Sunday Independent reported that he said he was owed R100000 in petrol money. That’s a lot of petrol. At R7,50 a litre, it buys 13300 litres of petrol. At 10 litres per 100km, this will get Mpofu 133000 kilometres, more than three times the circumference of the globe.

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