SABC television studios in Auckland Park. Picture: KEVIN SUTHERLAND
SABC television studios in Auckland Park. Picture: KEVIN SUTHERLAND

The debate on whether to sell off some of the SABC’s key assets, including possibly two television channels (SABC 1 and 3) and commercial radio stations such as Metro FM, is intensifying, but government is divided on the issue.  

The public broadcaster, the main source of news and commentary for most South Africans, is on the verge of collapse and has warned that it could be forced to go off the air unless the government quickly comes to its rescue.

The SABC has requested a R3.2bn government guarantee to stay afloat. The broadcaster has massive debt of almost R2bn, an enormous infrastructure maintenance backlog, and a huge and untenable wage bill.

According to sources close to the matter, one of the main reasons behind government’s reluctance to grant the R3.2bn loan guarantee is indecision around whether key assets should be sold, which would effectively partially privatise the corporation.

Finance minister Tito Mboweni  suggested as much in a media briefing before delivering his budget speech in Parliament in February when he said the cash-strapped SABC should seriously consider restructuring its operations, including merging radio stations and selling off some of its assets.

“Some within government believe that this is perhaps the only way that the broadcaster can be stabilised to become a going concern in future,” said one source privy to the discussions within government.

Another source said some within government found the suggestion strange, as selling SABC 1 and 3 in particular would virtually kill the public broadcaster.

“The idea is bizarre. They [the TV stations] are very attractive and selling them would mean the public broadcaster would have little chance of ever becoming commercially viable.”

In June, Mboweni refused to grant the SABC’s request for a government guarantee, stating: “I draw your attention to the fiscal constraints which do not allow for the ongoing bailout of entities that should in effect be commercially sustainable if operated in an effective manner.”

Although Mboweni declined to grant the SABC the guarantee, he said in his letter he recognised the immediate need for the public broadcaster to be given some form of assistance.

“As a result I have charged my director-general with determining how the SABC can be assisted through the funds provided within the contingency reserve. The possible allocation of this funding will, however, be subject to budgetary processes. My officials will be in contact with officials from the department of communications in order to facilitate this process,” said Mboweni.

In her budget vote speech in Parliament on Wednesday, communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, who was accused by the DA of misleading Parliament about the SABC’s request for a government guarantee, said government is actively looking at strengthening the SABC.

DA MP and communications spokesperson Phumzile Van Damme called on Ndabeni-Abrahams to ensure that the important role the SABC plays in SA’s democracy is protected, supported and respected.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za