/ 21 October 2020

Unions cry foul over SABC dismissal costs and retrenchments

The SABC has been scrambling to get a government guarantee that will allow it to take loans from commercial banks
Broadcaster bodies say claims that a recent skills audit is unrelated to retrenchments are ‘irrational’

Legal battles have cost the SABC close to R160-million over the last five years.

The hefty price tag of the ailing public broadcaster’s litigation efforts — many of which relate to disciplinary matters and dismissal disputes — were laid bare in a presentation to Parliament’s communications portfolio committee on Tuesday.

According to the presentation, the SABC’s litigation costs have dropped significantly in the last year, going from spending R37 168 000 in 2019 to R25 779 000 in 2020. The public broadcaster spent R159 348 000 on legal costs between 2016 and 2020. Not all of these costs relate to labour matters.

“The SABC is dealing with many historic cases caused by years of governance failures and litigation is by its nature expensive and time-consuming,” the presentation notes. “The SABC is therefore no different to other SOEs [state-owned entities] currently seeking financial and legal redress for past malfeasance and corrupt activities.” 

The public broadcaster has previously come under fire for bankrolling Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s many legal battles. The SABC had to fork out R22-million to cover its controversial former chief operating officer’s legal costs. Motsoeneng was a respondent in no less than 15 different cases since the 2013/14 financial year.

“When I joined the corporation just over two years ago, the board had expressed concern at the spiralling legal costs and demanded that a plan be put in place to reduce these costs,” the SABC’s legal head Ntuthuzelo Vanara said on Tuesday.

Since the SABC was handed a R3.2-billion bailout in 2019, it has been tasked with embarking on a turnaround strategy which will cut costs and boost its revenues.

High on the broadcaster’s list of areas identified for cost-cutting is its labour force, which has been subjected to a skills audit. Earlier this year, SABC management announced its intentions to push forward with retrenchments.

But on Tuesday, unions cried foul over the SABC’s use of the skills audit. The SABC has maintained that the skills audit is not related to the retrenchment process, which was instead necessitated by the dire financial position.

In a 63-page presentation, the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers Union (Bemawu), pointed out that the retrenchment notice sent to workers on 18 June said the broadcaster would choose workers up for retrenchment based on “an objective assessment of the skills, experience, expertise and/or qualifications of employees”.

“It is correct that the skills audit has nothing to do with the SABC’s intention to retrench staff. It however has everything to do with the selection criteria proposed by the SABC,” the Bemawu presentation reads. “It then makes it absolutely relevant and necessary to have a proper and authentic skills audit.”

The presentation later asks why the retrenchment process was initially halted to conduct the skills audit if the two are unrelated.

General secretary of Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), Aubrey Tshabalala, said on Tuesday that the SABC management has engaged with labour in bad faith.

“The skills audit remains a critical part of the turnaround strategy because it will assist us not to offload the critical skill that we will need in the near future,” the CWU’s presentation reads. 

“The SABC has since not come out clear on this subject, except in the last meeting, where it indicated that ‘legally’ it is not a requirement.”

Tshabalala said the broadcaster’s legal cases continue to be “frivolous”. “We hear the SABC management is trying to blame the past management. It is not the correct thing to do so. And it is also immoral … We have to talk about the futile expenditure that has happened under this management.”

The SABC Editorial Forum agreed that it was “irrational” to try to divorce the skills audit from the retrenchment process. 

“Our view is that this will deprive the broadcaster of relevant skills and undermine our public mandate. Without an ample skills audit what would inform retrenchment and any new structure? Having found the current flawed process confusing and incomplete, we therefore suggest its replacement with an all-encompassing, fair and authentic process.”

Staff have reportedly raised concerns with senior editorial management, human resources and the external service provider about the irrelevance of the questions asked in the skills audit survey.

The presentation by the department of communication noted that the ministry’s understanding was that the skills audit would be completed before the retrenchments and that it would provide a perspective on the SABC’s labour force in the section 189 process.

Deputy minister Pinky Kekana said the department hopes the SABC will take it into confidence on the retrenchment processes. The ministry has not been formally updated about the section 189 process, she said.

The SABC’s head of human resources, Mosia Mojaki, hit back at allegations the broadcaster had acted in bad faith during the retrenchments, in turn accusing labour of derailing the process. “Session after session, organised labour did not meaningfully engage, but they seek to delay and implement delaying tactics.”