The best thing about Ellen Tshabalala’s resignation as SABC chairperson this week, staffers say, is that they will go into festive season parties less likely to be the butt of all jokes.
“It’s a bit funny the first time you stand around the braai and people demand to see your matric certificate,” a member of the news team says. “Not really the second time, or the third, or the fourth, or the fifth …”
The organisation was, on Thursday, not so much sighing with relief as wallowing in continued cynicism: the fact that the chairperson of the board somehow could not locate proof of her claimed tertiary qualifications was embarrassing, but hardly topped the list of most pressing problems employees at the embattled organisation face. The red tape, the difficulties in appointing new staff, poor logistical and administrative support, all remain.
“It’s not like people were dancing in the foyer,” said an SABC manager. “There is this sense that this is over, done with, but we still need to do budgets without a permanent CEO. It’s been a long time since we’ve had competent people in those posts and we can only keep keeping on for so long before things fall apart.”
But elsewhere Tshabalala’s ability to cling on to her job in the face of all the evidence was considered a major roadblock to reform. With her gone the attention is shifting one level lower – and things could get very personal for others on the SABC board.
“We’re going to strictly apply the laws on the land, particularly the Companies Act, going forward and going a little backward,” Broadcasting Electronic Media and Allied Workers’ Union (Bemawu) president Hannes Buisson said on Thursday. “We will hold responsible and accountable each and every director of the SABC, and should any not act in the best interests of the SABC we will bring applications to declare them delinquent directors.”
Like others involved, Bemawu is not betting that President Jacob Zuma – widely believed to be personally responsible for the appointments – will populate the SABC board with apolitical technocrats, or that he can be lobbied to do so.
“We’ve seen how it has played out with board after board, year after year,” says Sekoetlane Phamodi, co-ordinator for SOS, the civil society group that began its life as the Save Our SABC campaign. “We’ll see similar issues play themselves out again.”
If the Bemawu legal theory holds, though, it can rain down judicial fire on those who take the job. Directors declared delinquent can be held personally liable for money wasted by the SABC, Bemawu believes, and can be barred from serving on any other company boards, making for a double-whammy threat of personal bankruptcy and professional ruin.
“That should sure bring some sense to people,” Buisson predicts.
In the meanwhile there is a new strain of bad jokes developing at the SABC around the humiliation staff believe Communications Minister Faith Muthambi suffered with the departure of Tshabalala, and the hope that it will make her more cautious in future.
Every morning those in the Johannesburg headquarters of the SABC pass through a foyer decorated with pictures of, among others, Zuma, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Muthambi.
“We sort of nod to the one, we look to the second with hope, and we try to have faith in the third,” says a staffer.