Communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni has threatened to withdraw government financial assistance to the SABC after she took umbrage at its criticism of her decision to switch off analogue television broadcasts on 31 March.
In an extraordinary letter, written to SABC board chairman Bongumusa Makhathini and dated Sunday, 27 March, the minister levels several allegations against the corporation, including that, in effect, it made false claims to support its contention that analogue switch-off, which it regards as premature, will hurt it financially.
And now she’s not only threatening to withdraw financial aid to the corporation but has said she will withdraw her support of its 2020/2021 annual financial and performance reports, among other punitive measures.
The minister’s astonishing letter comes just days after the SABC issued a statement in which it pleaded with government not to switch off analogue broadcasts in South Africa’s four biggest provinces – Gauteng, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape – at the end of the month, saying only 165 000 government set-top boxes, out of 2.9 million qualifying households, had been installed by February. Government pledged, but failed, to provide millions of set-top boxes to poorer households when it began the digital migration project more than a decade ago.
“The number [of boxes installed to date] is simply too low for the SABC’s analogue TV services to be switched off in the four largest provinces, at this stage,” the SABC said in its statement.
But Ntshavheni is clearly not amused. In her letter to Makhathini, she writes: “I have noted with disappointment that the SABC board has chosen to respond to my letter dated 24 March through a media statement.”
Later in the letter, she insinuates that the set-top box subsidy could be withdrawn at any time.
“The provision of set-top boxes to indigent households is part of supporting the sustainability of the SABC and it is not based on any provision of law, policy or regulations. The provision of set-top boxes to indigent households is based on a cabinet decision that can be rescinded at any given time, if it compromises the national interest,” the minister writes.
In the letter, she says she wrote on 24 March to the SABC board, refuting its claim that a loss of advertising revenue at the corporation was the result of digital migration. State-owned broadcast signal distributor Sentech has switched off analogue SABC TV broadcasts in South Africa’s five smallest provinces by population, and industry viewership data seen by TechCentral, and shared by eMedia Holdings, has shown a significant decline in the public broadcaster’s viewership in some of these provinces. eMedia, which owns e.tv, is suing the minister over the analogue switch-off date.
But the minister writes in her Sunday letter to the board: “My [24 March] letter refuted the board’s claim that the SABC’s loss of advertising revenue was a result of digital migration. I pointed out the fact that the claim of advertising revenue loss due to broadcast digital migration contradicts information as presented in the SABC quarterly performance and turnaround plan implementation reports. Therefore, your letter of 7 March and the board statement of 25 March are based on [a] different set of facts which were not included in the performance reports submitted to the department [of communications & digital technologies].
“In addition, the board claim [about] SABC revenue losses [is] not congruent with the revenue performance information as submitted in the quarterly performance reports.”
Because the SABC’s 7 March letter and the media statement of last Friday “cannot be mutually exclusive”, the minister writes in her letter to the board that she has decided to:
- Write to parliament to “withdraw all the SABC quarterly performance reports submitted under my signature (fourth quarter of 2020/2021 and first, second and third quarters of 2021/2022) as they are based on inaccurate information. I do this because I cannot knowingly be party to performance reports that are misleading to parliament.”
- Notify the auditor-general of her withdrawal of support for the 2020/2021 annual financial and performance report “because your letter and subsequent media statement dispute information in those reports”.
- Notify the minister of finance of “my intention to withhold the release of [the] next tranches of the turnaround strategy financial assistance”.
“I will allow the board to determine which set of facts it chooses as accurate and [to] correct the relevant public record,” Ntshavheni writes. (It’s not clear what financial assistance she is referring to – the recent bailout tranches agreed to by government have been paid in full by national treasury.)
“I would like to reiterate that the government, as shareholder of the SABC, has more vested interest in the sustainability of the SABC than any board can ever [have]. It is for this reason [that] government continues to provide support for the SABC.”
SABC GM for corporate affairs and marketing Gugu Ntuli declined to comment on the minister’s letter. – © 2022 NewsCentral Media