Threat of Afcon blackout

An SABC contract dispute is threatening to black out South African television coverage of the Africa Cup of Nations, due to kick off on Sunday, an internal SABC memo reveals.

And the Mail & Guardian learned on Thursday that Standard Bank is weighing legal action to recover at least some of its multimillion-rand sponsorship of the continent-wide football tournament.

Standard Bank’s senior manager group sponsorship, Andisa Ntsubane, told the M&G that the banking giant would look at what legal action it could pursue ‘in terms of claw-backs on its tournament sponsorship contract” if the Afcon Cup was not broadcast in South Africa.

‘It’s a big issue for us,” Ntsubane said. ‘I’ve been on the phone with the Confederation of African Football, SportFive [the agent] and SABC every day. We do due diligence on how much exposure we get for our rands.”

He declined to say how much the bank had put into the event.

At the heart of the ongoing dispute lies a R1-billion contract the SABC is reported to have signed with SportFive for the TV rights to all games of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) over the next eight years.

The SABC is seeking to repudiate the contract, claiming that the official who clinched it, group executive for content enterprises, Mvuzo Mbebe, had no authority from the board. The M&G reported last year that SportFive is planning to sue. Mbebe has since been suspended.

Negotiations were ongoing at the time of writing and sources close to the process confirmed that there was an attempt to resolve the dispute by the weekend so that local soccer fans would have coverage.

Pay-TV broadcaster MultiChoice has the rights to broadcast the tournament to the rest of Africa, but not to South Africa.

The M&G has in its possession an internal SABC email ordering staff to cease all reference to, or promotion of, the tournament. ‘We are waiting for clarity regarding the broadcast of this event,” states the email.

A second internal SABC message warns that the previous instruction is legally binding and that no contact should be made with officials of SportFive.

SABC sources confirmed that the SABC has pulled all promotion of the tournament after receiving legal advice. ‘It was our lawyers who decided we shouldn’t promote the tournament because it would look like we are agreeing that we do have a contract,” said an SABC source.

SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said the SABC is still negotiating with SportFive and no decision has yet been made about the broadcasting of the tournament.

Sources close to the negotiations and sympathetic to the SportsFive position told the M&G that the SABC was using high-stakes negotiating tactics to the detriment of South African football fans. A source said that SportFive had offered the SABC the opportunity to cancel the contract after the broadcast of the Afcon Cup as long as it paid the money it owed for CAF football games broadcast in 2008 and 2009. The source said SportFive was also insisting on letters from South Africa’s communications and finance ministries stating that in their view the original contract wasn’t valid.

They said that the SABC had refused the offer and was insisting on renegotiating the contract for half the original agreed price.

‘They want the same rights at half the price,” said the source. ‘If TV viewers cannot watch the Afcon Cup, it will not be because of CAF.”

The SABC’s interim board held that the original contract price was excessive and tried to renegotiate the deal.

At the time interim board member Leslie Sedibe said it was ‘shocking” that such huge sums were agreed to in the contract.

But in December last year SportFive took the SABC to court in France, demanding that the broadcaster pay the money it owed the agent. The French court dismissed SportFive’s case, stating that the matter could not be dealt with under the French civil code because the SABC was contesting the validity of the contract and whether it had been properly authorised by the SABC board.
Sedibe said the ruling allowed the broadcaster to reopen negotiations with SportFive. But the M&G understands that SportFive intends to contest the judgement.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye is a freelance journalist and one of the founders of The Con.

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