/ 25 July 2020

Political interference mounts over SABC retrenchments

Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni Abrahams And Her Deputy M
Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams (L) and Deputy Minister Pinky Kekana. (Photo: Siyabulela Duda)

The SABC is facing political pressure to suspend its planned retrenchments of about 600 employees, despite the public broadcaster facing a bleak future with R1.2-billion projected loss for the 2020-21 financial year. The public broadcaster was this week expected to brief the portfolio committee on communications about its turnaround plan, staff optimisation, editorial policy and skills audit. 

But that presentation did not see the light of day on Tuesday or Wednesday, as the board and the executives were not given an opportunity to go ahead with it by the ANC benches. 

“The SABC board and management were scheduled to appear before the parliament’s portfolio committee on communications on Tuesday … In this meeting, the committee resolved that the SABC will come at a later stage to present. We are awaiting further communication on this matter,” said acting SABC spokesperson Mmoni Seapolelo.

Portfolio committee chairperson Boyce Maneli told the Mail & Guardian that there was a unanimous decision this week that SABC’s decision to retrench was premature and that more consultations should take place. 

“In this meeting, it became clear to the committee, during opening remarks by the deputy minister, that the SABC [had not done] what was expected of it, and was not in possession of all the answers that were required,” Maneli said. “The committee resolved that SABC management should go back and hold proper consultations before presenting on the subject matter. Most importantly, the SABC will be invited to respond to all the issues that were raised by the deputy minister, CWU [ Communication Workers Union], Bemawu [Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers Union] and the editorial forum.” 

Maneli said the committee resolved that the public broadcaster should: “conduct [an] open and transparent skills audit, as well as reskill and upskill its workforce … Furthermore, the ANC’s position, which is consistent with that of government, is that of saving existing jobs in all sectors of the economy and creating more new jobs in line with the National Development Plan.” 

This follows an alleged verbal instruction on July 17 by Deputy Communications Minister Pinky Kekana to SABC board chairperson Bongumusa Makhathini, that the public broadcaster should suspend its section 189 process and rescind the board’s resolution on the implementation of its target operating model and the R700-million reduction in employee compensation and headcount. 

“We were stopped from presenting this week. This is a political issue and this is a repeat of what happened in 2018. Remember, the SABC was instructed by [Minister of Communications] Stella [Ndabeni-Abrahams] to stop the process, then last week the same thing happened but that came through the deputy,” said one SABC insider.

The M&G understands that the SABC board has written to Kekana, requesting that her instructions should be written down to comply with the law, and to allow the board to deliberate on them. 

The court had previously found that the board has exclusive powers to control the affairs of the SABC and that the shareholder (the minister of communications) was precluded from exercising any powers to instruct or control the public broadcasters’ directors in how they run the corporation. 

Kekana, through her spokesperson, Zandile Ngubeni, denied instructing the SABC to stop the retrenchment process. “The DM [deputy Mminister] cannot instruct the SABC, so it was not an instruction … As she represents government as a shareholder, she stated on record that, based on the unions not having been consulted, and the skills-audit process not being a transparent process, she does not support the retrenchment process, Kekana said. 

“From her [the deputy minister’s] perspective, this is what she thinks needs to happen until all compliance and governance of section 189 are met, including but not limited to the consultation with the unions, a skills audit that is transparent, et cetera. Also, there seems to be manipulation of certain processes, so there needs to be transparency at all times by the SABC in [its] approach to the processes,” said Kekana.

The M&G understands that the board has told Kekana that it can’t run a parallel process to that of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).  

Last week the SABC and the unions met the CCMA about the public broadcaster’s section 189 process. The M&G reported last week that battle lines had been drawn between the SABC and the unions, which vowed to picket over the retrenchment process.  

The unions threatened to approach the labour court for an interdict if the CCMA process continued without their concerns about the skills audit, consultation and alleged unilateral restructuring being addressed.

The SABC, however, has rubbished claims by the unions that there were no consultations, that the skills audit process was not transparent. 

The public broadcaster has had serious cash flow and revenue challenges for several years, and has relied on government bailouts. Last year, the government extended a bailout of R2.1-billion, as part of a R3.2-billion total bailout. 

The SABC told the M&G last week that it has to cut costs because of its dire financial situation, with its salary bill accounting for more than 45% of its expenditure. In its prepared presentations, seen by the M&G, the SABC has also revealed that it spends only 21% on content. 

As a benchmarking exercise, it showed that eMedia Holdings, which has more than 20 channels and fewer than 1 000 employees, spent 11% on staff costs. MultiChoice, with more than 30 channels, spends 15% on employees and 43% on content, even though its model is built on advertising revenue. 

“Look at the BBC: they get about R80 billion a year from the government via TV licenses and then the SABC is expected to carry out its public mandate, but it is not supported,” an SABC insider said. “[The] reasons for any company to retrench is economic and structural — [a]  skills audit has never been part of that. We have been consulting with all the stakeholders.”

It was reported by City Press that the SABC was told by the ANC during a meeting at the party’s headquarters to stop with the retrenchment process.