The SABC office in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
The SABC office in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

The SABC is set to cut as much as a fifth of its workforce as it moves to reduce its staggering wage bill.

But unions are challenging the planned retrenchment of 600 workers, which comes after management recently approved above-inflation salary increases of 5%-6%.

The public broadcaster announced on Thursday that it had issued a notice of possible redundancies.

The SABC said the notice follows the launch of its new operating model — a strategic renewal initiative aimed at transforming the organisation into a “financially sustainable, self-sufficient and fit-for-purpose public broadcaster”.

Like many other state-owned entities, the national broadcaster has been in a financial mess for several years, often requiring government bailouts to continue operating. It has been saddled with crippling debt of close to R2bn, a huge infrastructure maintenance backlog and a huge and unsustainable wage bill. It spends more than R3bn a year on the salaries of more than 3,000 permanent employees. It received a R3.2bn bailout from the government late in 2019, which it used to pay off most of its debt.

With advertising revenue continuing to plummet due to the Covid-induced economic crisis, the broadcaster is forecasting a budget shortfall of at least R1.5bn in the financial year. The broadcaster now wants the government to review its budget for the financial year.

SABC management said in a statement on Thursday that it has a duty to ensure the continued viability of the company so that it may fulfil its public mandate and effectively serve the millions of South Africans who rely on it for education, information and entertainment.

“The notice of redundancy will impact about 600 employees, and these affected employees will be invited to make representations during a consultation process which will be facilitated by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA),” the broadcaster said.

In 2018 Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams rode into a storm two weeks after she was appointed communications minister, clashing with the SABC board over job cuts. The planned retrenchment of 981 permanent staff and 1,200 freelancers at the time was set to take place as the SABC looked to turn around its poor financial state. She intervened, telling staff at the broadcaster nobody would lose their jobs.

The Communications Workers Union (CWU) said the latest proposed retrenchments had taken workers by surprise.

“We met SABC management last week to discuss the turnaround plan, including a skills audit, which is still ongoing. There was no mention of retrenchments then,” said CWU general secretary Aubrey Tshabalala.

He said management and the board were acting in bad faith and lacked integrity.

“The gloves are off. We will look at the proposal and we will challenge. This will be the biggest fight,” Tshabalala said.

Update: June 18 2020

This story has been updated to include reaction from the Communications Workers Union.