LETTER: Act now or the SABC will die
The government must help the public broadcaster on its road to recovery
In 2010 Zapiro published a cartoon with a couple on the couch watching the news. The headlines shouted: “Financial crisis … board collapsing … CEO suspended,” causing the woman to comment: “I’m tired of all the repeats on SABC.”
Then, a few years later when the SABC found itself in a similar situation, it was republished, unchanged. And now in 2019 Zapiro might be able to take the day off and use it almost word for word yet again. It’s Groundhog Day at the SABC.
The broadcaster is drowning in debt, relying on old content, struggling with a fractious board and facing threatened or actual resignations by the entire top team. This despite the leadership they have shown so far, proving to be professional, dedicated and committed to rooting out corruption and waste.
The SABC’s CEO and the executive committee has proposed, or already embarked on, a credible turnaround strategy, substantial cost-cutting (saving R1bn), investing in content to attract audiences and advertisers, as well as initiating thorough investigations into mismanagement and abuse of power that went on unchecked for years.
It is not clear what else could be asked of them. And yet government support is still nowhere to be seen. The department of communications and the Treasury have still not delivered the bailout and loan guarantee package that is not only needed but was promised.
On July 10 communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams promised two cash infusions, one 10 days later and the other 45 days later. Those dates have come and gone. Soon after the finance minister allocated R3.2bn to the bailout; but again, nothing. That is not the only confusing signal. Before the elections Ndabeni-Abrahams rejected the board’s turnaround plan because it called for retrenchments. But after the elections she rejected the turnaround plan because, in effect, it did not call for retrenchments.
The government must take responsibility for the mess it has allowed to develop. The SABC is too important to fail. Millions of citizens depend on it for news, investigative journalism, documentaries about social issues and to see their stories being told. Beyond that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs that face being lost as actors, writers, directors, producers and crews sit idle, with many companies going bankrupt, especially small black-owned enterprises.
Unlike other state-owned enterprises with which it is often lumped together, there is no reason to believe the SABC cannot get back on its feet and pay its own way soon. The SABC had successfully paid off its previous government-guaranteed loan and, despite widespread misapprehension, has not been reliant on the government for more than 3% of its budget (more than 80% of its revenue comes from advertising).
It is completely understandable that the government wants to make sure the SABC does not become another money pit. But after a rolling crisis that has continued for over a year and a half, that is exactly what will happen if it doesn’t act now: leadership will be decimated, audiences will continue to flee, revenues will crash and the government will face an even bigger mess. And this time it might be our last chance. Even Groundhog Day does not repeat itself forever.
Sisanda Henna and Nimrod Geva, Independent Producers Organisation