Minister of communications & digital technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: GCIS
Minister of communications & digital technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: GCIS

The SABC board has decided to suspend retrenchments at the embattled broadcaster to allow for further consultations.

After an emergency meeting on Thursday, the SABC board said the issuing of retrenchment notices would be put on hold for seven days to allow for further consultations and explore further options to ensure the sustainability of the organisation.  

“The SABC is committed to meaningfully engaging with all its stakeholders as it continues to make the corporation financially sustainable in order to fulfil its public mandate,” the public broadcaster said.

However unions have vowed to continue with strike action unless retrenchments are completely off the table. This could lead to a blackout on SABC channels on Friday.

The broke broadcaster, which has often required government bailouts to continue operating, sank into a deeper crisis this week when management indicated that they would press on with plans to cut jobs in a bid to stabilise its dire finances and avert a collapse of the organisation. This prompted protests from staff who threatened to down tools on Friday.

Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, who has blocked previous retrenchment attempts at the SABC leading to the resignation of some board members in 2018, entered the fray this week calling on the broadcaster to consider other alternatives. The ANC also opposes the cuts, with secretary-general Ace Magashule telling the broadcaster in an interview on Wednesday that the party’s MPs were expected to fall in line and support the call to ensure that job losses are averted. He said the board, “which has ANC deployees" should do the same.

The board appeared before parliament’s communications committee on Wednesday evening to discuss the proposed job cuts, which could affect 400 out of the almost 3,000 staff. It emerged that at least five nonexecutive directors of the 12-member board opposed retrenchments, which have been on the table since 2018.

Board chair Bongumusa Makhathini said this week job cuts are unavoidable if the public broadcaster is to avert a collapse similar to national carrier SAA or state-owned arms maker Denel. He said job cuts can be averted only when the government agrees to grant SABC at least R1bn a year, “but we know government doesn’t have money. We have no choice."

However, his deputy, Mamodupi Mohlala-Mulaudzi, told MPs at least five members of the board, including her, opposed the cuts. She said various other options should be considered including salary cuts across the board. The SABC, which has a wage bill of more than R3bn a year for its 3,000 permanent employees, received a conditional R3.2bn bailout from the government late in 2019, which it used to pay off most of its debt and invest in content. Part of the conditions included reducing the salary bill. Management has said it wants to reduce it by at least R700m.

“We don’t want to leave a legacy that we are the board that came and fired people,” Mohlala-Mulaudzi said.

But board member Michael Markovitz said retrenchments were necessary if the broadcaster is to be sustainable. He also said a lot of investors were looking at the SABC situation to assess the government’s commitment to stabilise the country’s finances.

“The SABC is technically insolvent. As directors we have a duty to address this, the cost base is not sustainable. It is tragic for people to lose their jobs ... but we are the ones who arrived at the scene of the car crash after years of malfeasance and we are being blamed for it ... We don’t want to rely on bailouts, we want to be sustainable,” Markovitz said.

On Thursday the Communications Workers Union called for the retrenchment notices to be retracted and for the SABC board to be dissolved. The union wants the broadcaster placed under administration. The Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers Union (Bemawu), which counts 1,300 SABC staffers among its member ranks, indicated on Thursday it would approach the labour court after the public broadcaster cut consultation with the union. ​

phakathib@businesslive.co.za  

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