Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: SIYABULELA DUDA
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: SIYABULELA DUDA

The planned job cuts at the cash-strapped SABC have set communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams at odds with her board, with the minister accusing the directors of not acting in the best interest of the company.

Like her predecessor, Nomvula Mokonyane, Ndabeni-Abrahams who was recently appointed to the portfolio has made it clear that she is opposed to the retrenchments and has suggested that President Cyril Ramaphosa should intervene. 

The SABC board on the other hand maintains it has little choice but to let go over 2,000 workers in order to remain sustainable.

The impasse is set to test the board’s independence. Late in 2017, the high court in Pretoria affirmed the independence of the SABC board, which had long been bedevilled by political interference, precipitating the collapse of previous boards.

In a strongly worded letter to SABC board chairman Bongumusa Makhathini at the weekend, Ndabeni-Abrahams stated that Parliament also opposed the retrenchments with the portfolio committee on communications requesting the board to consider other alternatives.

“As a shareholder, and further taking into account the discussions at Parliament … we pleaded with the board to suspend the section 189 notice so as to allow us an opportunity to familiarise with the turnaround strategy, the bailout application, and furthermore in consideration of the impending meeting between myself and the Minister of Finance to discuss the SABC’s financial position,” said  Ndabeni-Abrahams.

She said the SABC board had “flatly declined this request” stating that the retrenchment exercise would continue while the Minister approached the Presidency and National Treasury for a cash injection.

According to Ndabeni-Abrahams the board stated that it would review the pace and quantum of the impact of the section 189 should funding be found.

“The board further made it clear that irrespective of the success of the government guarantee or bailout they will still proceed with retrenchments. As the shareholder representative we are left with no option but to desist from all engagements with the SABC board including National Treasury and the turnaround task team as we realised that the board was no longer acting in the interests of the company, the shareholder, and Parliament.”

“We will report this impasse to the President, Parliament and all relevant stakeholders,” said Ndabeni-Abrahams.

The SABC did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

The broadcaster recently told members of parliament’s communications portfolio committee that retrenchments are unavoidable, despite objections by the government, labour and MPs. The broadcaster spends more than R3bn a year on the salaries of slightly more than 3,000 permanent employees. The planned job cuts are likely to affect close to 1,000 permanent employees and 1,200 freelancers.

The SABC says it needs a cash injection of at least R3bn to stay afloat. In September, the public broadcaster, which recorded a staggering loss of R622m in the financial year ended March, was granted borrowing powers and a borrowing limit of up to R1.2bn by the Treasury, in line with the Public Finance Management Act. However, executives said no lender was prepared to do business with the public broadcaster which could result in it failing to pay salaries and service providers in the coming months. The SABC said this was owing to its disclaimer audit opinion and the fact that the auditor-general had raised doubts about its going-concern status.

DA MP and communications spokesperson Phumzile Van Damme said while the Communications Minister does indeed have an oversight role over the SABC, she does not, however, have the power to give instructions to the board.

“The current SABC board has done well to enforce its independence and stand up to political interference by former communications ministers and it is evident it is doing the same with the current one,” said Van Damme.

“That being said, the SABC board reports to and is accountable to Parliament and has not covered itself in glory regarding its proposed plan to retrench 2200 staff. The DA has consistently said that the board must conduct an independent skills and salary audit before considering retrenchments, a view that was shared by the rest of the Communications Portfolio Committee when the board appeared before it last week,” she said.

Van Damme said the SABC has until January to present both the results of an independent skills and salary audit, as well as a clear strategic plan to Parliament or face the risk of being axed. In terms of the Broadcasting Act, Parliament can dissolve the SABC board for the inability to perform its duties “efficiently.”

“The ball is ultimately in the SABC board’s court. It must in January not give the Communications Committee reason to dissolve it, by presenting the results of an independent skills and salary audit and a clear strategic plan.”