EDITORIAL: The decline and fall of the SABC
Faith Muthambi plays the fiddle while the SABC burns
The parliamentary hearings on the SABC this week invoke an old truism; however bad you might think things are, it’s almost inevitable that they are much worse. The hearings will continue this week, but even what we have heard so far has been shocking and frightening.
What we knew before the hearings was bad enough. The SABC has totally relinquished its legal and ethical mandate. It’s easy to be cynical about this failure, because as many have argued, the SABC always has been the compliant tool of the government in power, stretching back as far as its establishment. But precisely because of the venality of the organisation during the apartheid era, a comprehensive set of rules, principles, procedures and structures were established in law to make sure it would never happen again.
And yet, it did. And it has. And it continues. All of the elaborate procedures have been swept away by "Hurricane Hlaudi" with a contempt that makes a mockery of legality and public broadcasting ethics. However bad things were during the Mbeki administration, they got worse during the Zuma administration; more dysfunctional, more venal, bigger financial losses. One by one, the members of the SABC board have resigned, leaving only the chairman, Mbulaheni Obert Maguvhe, who happens to be blind.
With the deepest respect to Maguvhe’s disability, who on earth would make a blind man head of a television service? And while this ludicrous travesty unfolds, Communications Minister Faith Muthambi plays the fiddle while the SABC burns, seemingly unconcerned and unresponsive.
That parlous state was the situation before the start of the hearings this week. Surely, it cannot get worse than that? Surely not?
Turns out it can.
With a stomach-sinking inevitability, it now appears that the Gupta family were involved at one point in trying to take over the news service prior to the launch of their own 24-hour news station ANN7. All this happened a long time ago, but you have to ask, is there no stone that when turned, does not reveal a slithering deal involving the president’s sidekicks?
The deal was that one of the Gupta companies, TNA, would not pay any rent, the news would be rebranded, the SABC would provide resources and journalists, and TNA would retain advertising revenue. The controversial former chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng apparently supported the plan. Thankfully, in a rare moment of clarity, the idea was thrown out. But, obviously, an alternative was hatched that the SABC did support.
Even in its own cash-strapped state, it now turns out that the SABC paid enormous amounts of money to participate in "Business Breakfasts" hosted by what had become a rival television station, ANN7.
So how could such an absurdity happen? That was known before this week’s hearings, but the details that emerged this week underline the craziness of the situation. For example, acting CEO Phil Molefe testified that Motsoeneng threatened to "go to Pretoria" in 2011 after Molefe refused to give him a R500,000 increase. Motsoeneng apparently has the president’s number on speed dial. With the president’s backing, acting with impunity is not only permitted, but appears to be encouraged.
And yet, it’s all gradually coming crashing down. In a strange twist of fate, while the hearings were on the go, the High Court in Cape Town declared that Motsoeneng’s appointment as group executive of corporate affairs was "irrational and unlawful". Some of the SABC’s best staff have left. Its boardroom is empty. Its coffers are depleted.
It has become the worst nightmare that any public utility can become: it has become a parody of itself.