/ 17 April 2021

Resuscitate the public broadcaster

Hlaudi Cult
The cult of Hlaudi: Religious leaders praying for then SABC chief executive Lulama Mokhobo and then acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng back in 2012. Photo: Madelene Cronjé

Back in November, we voiced our loathing for the greedy and corrupt people who stripped the SABC of its integrity. “It isn’t those at the top who pay for their own mistakes,” we wrote. “The brunt, cruelly, is felt by people on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder.”

That prognosis was fully realised last month. More than 600 people were retrenched by the national broadcaster — 346 were compelled to take voluntary severance packages, and the positions of 275 others no longer exist.

The public broadcaster said that some employees went through the recruitment process to seek alternative opportunities but were unsuccessful. The fact that this has been the long-term plan is unlikely to ease the pain for those affected.

The reduction of employees is part of the SABC’s turnaround and long-term sustainability plan that was concluded on 31 March.

SABC group chief executive Madoda Mxakwe said: “The retrenchment process has been extremely difficult for all stakeholders and became emotionally charged at times. The extended process unfortunately also created prolonged uncertainty and a sense of despondency for many. This was understandable and regrettable.”

But it remains all too easy to be numbed by those numbers. The media landscape was brutalised by the pandemic: we have seen a number of publications shut their doors; others, like ours, have had to trim what is already a lean budget. Under such a horrible spectre, it is easy to chalk up job losses to a freak plague.

However, in this quest to resuscitate the SABC, we have to ask ourselves why consequences seem scant. Yes, some, like Hlaudi Motsoeneng, have been kicked out of the organisation, but others, such as Faith Muthambi, have not faced any measure of accountability, and continue to serve the ANC as representatives of the people in parliament.

Everyone knows what Motsoeneng is “alleged” to have done: inflating the salaries of his cabal, giving away advertising spend to the Gupta family and turning the SABC into his personal fiefdom with his hiring and firing game of Snakes and Ladders. Muthambi, as the sentry, enabled his behaviour.

As well as not having the kind of dynamic vision to carry it to the future, the SABC is in this position because we do not mete out consequences. It is because there are no repercussions that we watch media  colleagues lose their livelihoods.

The broadcaster’s decline was signed long before any virus was a threat; sealed by political goons who placed their misguided allegiances above morals or journalistic ethics.

To this end, we must remind ourselves of stories like that of Sam Thobakgale. As Scrolla.Africa reported in December 2019, Thobakgale hanged himself in 2017 after being fired by the SABC. By all accounts a friendly and joyful man, he left behind a family that was entirely dependent on his income.

He, along with 122 others, was fired using fake documents. Already cash-strapped and beginning to feel the hot breath of desperation, the SABC allegedly decided to take a shortcut and tweaked arbitrator documents to nudge the unsuspecting employees out the door.

The shock of losing your job was borne out on our TV screens late last month. Watching a tearful Desiree Chauke struggle through delivering a news bulletin was painful enough, but to see 30-year veteran Noxolo Grootboom exit the SABC under the cloud of retrenchment dressed up as retirement was gutting.

Often when we speak about the rampant graft at state-owned entities we tend to forget that there are people employed there. People who have served dutifully for years. People who make this country function.

Headlines speak of millions and billions lost and drama and intrigue at a board level, but we seldom talk about what that means for those who have to do the grunt work. That wet coal and dirty water is one aspect of the crime. There’s also the toll it takes on workers.

Years of corruption and mismanagement have hobbled the public broadcaster. The SABC’s assets were sold and allowed to run down. The corporation sold its archive to MultiChoice for much less than it was worth. In July 2020, we reported how the SABC pays more than R3-billion of its revenue to salaries, even though more than 50% of its permanent staff are not suited or skilled for the positions they hold, and it is projected that the broadcaster will make a loss of R1.2-billion for 2020-21.

In 2019, the SABC was handed a R3.2-billion bailout and, if its current financial position does not change, the begging bowl will be out again for more taxpayers’ money.

We would do well to remember that a public broadcaster is designed to play a crucial role in our democracy. With government resources and infrastructure behind it, the SABC, in theory, is able to deliver news, information and current affairs to almost every corner of South Africa through its multiple platforms. The importance of that service cannot be overstated and is one we cannot allow to die.

Another bailout or turnaround strategy just won’t cut it.