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

The SABC is on the brink of collapse, warning that it could be forced to go off the air as soon as “tomorrow” unless the government comes to the rescue soon.

The national broadcaster says it cannot guarantee it will be able to pay its employees’ salaries in the months ahead.  

The broadcaster, which remains the only source of news and commentary for millions of South Africans, has requested a  R3,2bn government guarantee to stay afloat, but its bid for funding has so far been unsuccessful.

It is saddled with crippling debt of close to R2bn which is due, a massive 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.

Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams rode into a storm in 2018, two weeks after she was appointed as communications minister, clashing with the SABC board over job cuts.

The retrenchment of 981 permanent staff and 1,200 freelancers was set to take place as the SABC looked to turn around its poor financial state. She intervened, telling staffers at the broadcaster nobody would lose their jobs.

Amid the mixed signals, the SABC’s coffers continued to bleed. Costs far exceeded revenue and debts continued to pile up.

The SABC owes about R320m to state signal distributor Sentech, which could at any time decide to suspend its service, which would lead to a blackout. The broadcaster also owes MultiChoice’s SuperSport division R208m. It owes the City of Johannesburg more than R13.5m.

In an interview on the SABC news channel on Monday, SABC CFO Yolandi van Biljon said should all its major “partners” including Sentech decide to stop supporting the public broadcaster, it could be forced to switch off its microphones and cameras.

“Every month it’s a balancing act between the different priorities we have. We do prioritise salaries, but in the process we have to balance between the critical operational requirements, content, and salaries on an ongoing basis and it remains uncertain until the very last moment,” said Van Biljon.   

“It has been the case for the last eight or nine months, but it has been progressively worsening in the last few months.  We have had low income months due to various reasons and this impacted on our cash flow.”

She said “day zero [the day on which the broadcaster could be forced to go off air] can happen tomorrow”.

“It depends … if these partners are not able to support us [by demanding immediate payment] and critical infrastructure breaks down then [we could have a total blackout at any time].  We try to manage it. We have phenomenal people who ensure that we remain on air,” said Van Biljon.

She added that should “day zero” occur, almost half of SA’s population would lose access to news, entertainment and educational content.  This also means the SABC would be in contravention of its licensing conditions.

Van Biljon said the public broadcaster expects a government guarantee to be finalised within the next nine to 12 months. The funds would be channelled toward debt repayment, investment in content and critical infrastructure.

“We have not had formal feedback from government … I do believe we have submitted everything we had to. I presume the application is now just following the process in the Treasury. Treasury sits with the same balancing act [as the SABC]. There are other state-owned enterprises facing financial troubles. This takes time, but I think we have met every requirement.”

Meanwhile, Van Biljon said the SABC was engaging with various financial institutions to support the broadcaster in the short term until the government guarantee is made available.

Furthermore, the SABC was looking into short-term plans to generate cash, such as selling land and buildings it owns.

Ahead of his budget speech in parliament in February, finance minister Tito Mboweni suggested that the cash-strapped broadcaster should seriously consider restructuring its operations, including merging radio stations and selling off some of its assets.

The Treasury on Tuesday said it had received a R3.2bn government guarantee request, which is still under consideration.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za