Well, that didn’t take long. Newly appointed (tele)communications minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, has a full-blown crisis on her hands at the SABC — and it’s of her own making.
The new minister has instructed the SABC board to halt a retrenchments programme that it wanted completed by the end of February next year to address its deepening financial crisis. There’s a very real possibility that it won’t be able to pay salaries much longer.
Retrenching a large number of employees at the public broadcaster — nearly a quarter of permanent staff will be let go under the board’s plan — is clearly undesirable for the ANC going into an election year.
But by trying to put a halt to it, the net effect could be that Ndabeni-Abrahams plunges the corporation into even greater distress. If that happens, then without a huge taxpayer bailout running into billions of rand, it will very likely go to the wall. That may happen anyway if it can’t get its cost structure under control.
This is not an auspicious start for Ndabeni-Abrahams as new minister. As I wrote on TechCentral recently, she has much more important things to deal with — stuff that will have a meaningful impact on economic growth and job creation. These include ensuring digital terrestrial television migration is fast-tracked, ensuring mobile operators urgently get access to new radio frequency spectrum for broadband, and withdrawing and rewriting the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill, which, if enacted in its current form, will chase away investors in one of the sectors that could help lead South Africa out of its economic malaise.
The minister is also acting outside of her powers. She is not allowed to intervene in the operational management of the SABC, which means she can’t direct the board not to proceed with the planned retrenchments. The SABC is accountable to parliament, not to the executive arm of government. She’s not also allowed to remove and replace the board — that’s also the prerogative of parliament. But what she can do, and what she is doing, is making life very difficult indeed for the board. Perhaps that’s her intention: to make it untenable for board members to continue with their jobs, leading to their resignations.
Two have already quit — John Matisonn and Khanyisile Kweyama — though perhaps not because they disagree with Ndabeni-Abrahams. A third, Krish Naidoo, has been pressured to go by Luthuli House, according to a statement issued on Tuesday by Democratic Alliance MP Phumzile Van Damme. It’s not clear, though, whether Naidoo has, in fact, tendered his resignation. I hear he hasn’t (yet).
A depressing aspect of all this is that, after the disastrous Hlaudi Motsoeneng years, the current SABC board is the strongest it’s had in a long time. But its decisions are being constantly second-guessed by politicians. The board has been working tirelessly to fix the mess left by the previous board and Motsoeneng’s rotten tenure as chief operating officer.
It’s clear that last Thursday’s meeting between Ndabeni-Abrahams and the SABC board was a fiery one. In a letter to the board on Friday, the minister said the board had made it clear that “irrespective of the success of a government guarantee or bailout, they will still proceed with retrenchments”.
“As the shareholder representative, we were left with no option but to desist from all engagements with the SABC board … as we realised the board was no longer acting in the interests of the company, the shareholder and parliament as the representative of South African public to which the SABC board is accountable,” she wrote.
“We will report this impasse to the president, parliament and all relevant stakeholders … because the SABC is a public institution with clear lines of accountability,” she added.
The DA’s Van Damme slammed the minister in her statement, saying the ANC is using the “excuse of ‘saving jobs’ by halting retrenchments, but it knows full well that the SABC is commercially insolvent and its staff bloated”.
“The only reason the (ANC) would want to collapse the board would be to install an interim board that would be at its beck and call. Its concern is not the staff of the SABC but its own electoral prospects.”
If Ndabeni-Abrahams is successful in stopping the retrenchments programme, it’s fair to assume that immediately after the election they’ll likely be back on the agenda. National treasury simply doesn’t have the money to bail out the SABC and Eskom and South African Airways and Denel and and and… And, quite frankly, nor should it. The SABC, like any other state-owned enterprise, needs to fund its own way, not go cap in hand to taxpayers to fund its bloat and inefficiency. In the private sector, companies are forced to cut costs when they get into difficulty. If they don’t, they go out of business. State-owned enterprises shouldn’t be exempt from this basic rule.
What should happen is the minister should stop meddling in the operations of the SABC (which she is not entitled to do in the first place) and allow the board to do what it believes is necessary to save the corporation from bankruptcy.
If that means retrenchments (after a skills audit, as Van Damme has rightly insisted, to determine who it can and can’t afford to get rid of), then so be it. If it means selling some of its assets, like its vast property portfolio, then so be it.
Ultimately, if the SABC is to survive (never mind thrive), the board needs political support to create a leaner, more efficient broadcaster ready to tackle the challenges of the digital age. Unfortunately, it appears unlikely to get that support from this interfering minister. — (c) 2018 NewsCentral Media
- Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral