SABC television studios in Auckland Park. Picture: KEVIN SUTHERLAND
SABC television studios in Auckland Park. Picture: KEVIN SUTHERLAND

A seat on the SABC board has been described by some as a poisoned chalice. Rightly so.

When the new non-executive and executive directors took their seats for the first time in 2018, hopes were high that these individuals would usher in an era of healthier leadership and stability at the troubled public broadcaster.

But almost immediately political interference scuppered efforts to turn around the ailing public broadcaster and return it to financial health. The executives had suggested that retrenchments, among other cost-cutting measures, would be inevitable after they identified the unsustainable wage bill as one of the key areas that needed to be tackled urgently to address the financial crisis.

The institution spends more than R3bn a year on the salaries of more than 3,000 permanent employees.

However, communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams stopped them in their tracks. This was clearly a populist move which was not in the best interest of the SABC, but meant to placate unions ahead of elections. Some board members resigned in protest.

Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: SOWETAN
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: SOWETAN

While the board, chaired by Bongumusa Makhathini, is now back to its full complement, the damage caused by Ndabeni-Abrahams’ interference continues to hold back the SABC.  

Now the public broadcaster is on the verge of switching off its microphones and cameras as its cash flow crisis deepens, and government dithers on granting it a R3.2bn guarantee.

In addition to the staggering wage bill, the broadcaster is struggling to service its debt of close to R2bn. It also has a huge infrastructure maintenance backlog but no funds to address this, which in itself could lead to a blackout.

Should the SABC go off air, more than half of the population which relies on the public broadcaster for news and commentary would be affected.

Some contend that the public’s right to have a well-funded and democratically run public broadcaster is crucial for democracy, and therefore the SABC should be guaranteed an improved level of government funding to ensure it can carry out its role as a public broadcaster.

The SABC receives 85% of its revenue from advertising, sponsorships and other commercial partnerships, 3% from the government and 12% from TV licence fees.

The broadcaster has mainly attributed its losses over the years to declining advertising revenue across all platforms, coupled with deteriorating TV licence fee collection. It has bemoaned the fact that it is underfunded by government, which it says makes it difficult for it to meet its mandate.

The unprofitable public broadcaster is compelled through legislation to cover events that are deemed to be of national importance, such as the nationa football and rugby teams.

It has spent just over R1bn over the past four years on acquiring sports rights.

The SABC previously stated that failure to broadcast key sporting events could lead to reputational damage, an outcry from the public and, subsequently, a decline in advertising revenue and a drop in TV licence payments.

However, it is worth highlighting that public broadcasters all over the world face similar financial challenges as media choices multiply, competition increases and new platforms of delivery come on board.

But what sets the SABC apart in a damaging fashion from other public broadcasters, especially in developed nations, is heavy political interference, which has made it difficult for executives to make the hard decisions needed to improve the SABC’s finances.

This has been the case since its formation in 1936 with governing  parties viewing it as a propaganda tool. One of the most recent examples of meddling included the same Ndabeni-Abrahams, who infamously tried to prevent SABC journalists from covering service-delivery protests that may have embarrassed the government. 

She may have apologised for her intervention but the suspicion that elements in government want the SABC to be nothing more than an extension of the Luthuli House media operation will persist.

That’s a reason to be pessimistic about the corporation’s prospects, no matter how much money we keep throwing at it.   

As long as politicians view it as their plaything, management stability and financial sustainability will remain a pipe dream.