EDITORIAL: SABC will struggle to corral funds from tuned-out public
Few dispute the idea that a functioning democracy needs a vibrant and independent media.
In 1992, the ANC acknowledged this gospel, pledging to open up the airwaves for a host of new commercial broadcasters and transforming the SABC from a propaganda tool for the apartheid government into an organisation with an unwavering loyalty to the public.
It tried to live up to its promise when it began to govern amid a blaze of international goodwill two years later. With Zwelakhe Sisulu as CEO and Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri leading the board, the public broadcaster became a site of excellence in the early 1990s, enjoying the support of the public, not just in SA, but across Africa.
Between 2001 and 2005, under the leadership of Peter Matlare, who died last week and ran a tight fiscal ship, the SABC enjoyed some of its most profitable years in history.
Unfortunately, as most of this newspaper’s readers are aware, it did not take long before the government started stifling independent journalism and meddling in the broadcaster’s operational affairs as party leaders jostled to gain control of the airwaves to advance their factional agenda while others went after its purse.
It got worse when Jacob Zuma ascended to the presidency a decade later. At the time, SABC’s former COO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, did not even try to avoid the appearance of being the megaphone for the ANC, trashing a well-thought-out constitutional mandate to serve the public and making clear that the SABC’s separation from the ANC and the state only existed on paper.
The only result is that the SABC has completely lost the trust of one of its biggest sources of income, the public, which often complains about the broadcaster’s poor programming and the lack of independence in its news coverage.
In 2019, a commission of inquiry into editorial interference at the SABC found that the “spectre of the ANC” hovered over the public broadcaster’s newsroom between 2012 and 2017, findings later painfully confirmed by revelations from multiple witnesses at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture.
By and large, all this played a big part in the public broadcaster’s deteriorating financial health, prompting it to join a host of other state-owned companies from Denel to SAA in shamelessly asking the Treasury for cash injections to stay in business.
Under pressure from finance minister Tito Mboweni, a lone voice eager to reverse a slide in public finances, the board of the SABC has floated a funding plan that would require every household to pay a levy for public service media. According to the proposal, the so-called “device-independent, tech-neutral household levy for public broadcasting” is linked to the public’s access to the broadcaster’s content rather than consumption.
Essentially, the SABC wants the SA Revenue Service (Sars) to collect its R265 licence fees on its behalf because only a fifth of households pay the mandatory annual fee. Now it wants the tax agency to take that amount even from those who don’t own television sets or watch its programmes.
The reasons for that are depressing: the SABC has failed to execute one of its most basic duties and, quite frankly, the public has lost confidence in the public broadcaster after years of mismanagement and political meddling, and do not see value in supporting it.
Roping in the tax collection agency, and assuming the fee stays more or less at about R265 a year, the SABC would raise almost R6bn in revenue — six times what it collected in its most recent financial year. While the proposal could be an effective way to collect the licence fee, it will struggle to get buy-in from a rightly sceptical public, who might need convincing that the broadcaster’s problems are due to its funding model rather than mismanagement.
It may also be seen as a cynical attempt to avoid the necessary reform and short-term pain needed to return it to its glory days of the early 1990s and make it relevant for the future.
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