Minister of communications & digital technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: GCIS
Minister of communications & digital technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Picture: GCIS

If you’re the masochistic sort, you’d have got particular delight from last week’s meeting of parliament’s portfolio committee on communications, in which various MPs, including communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams and her equally-at-sea deputy, rambled on about the SABC’s planned retrenchments.

All told, it was five hours and 19 minutes of mostly unintelligible blather, pockmarked by entirely unconvincing platitudes like "serving the public" — something of which you’d never dare accuse Ndabeni-Abrahams in particular. Nor was basic fiscal competence much in evidence either.

It’s unclear why it is that the communications ministry has long been the dumping ground of the ANC’s most witless deployees. But on this score, Ndabeni-Abrahams loses nothing by comparison with predecessors such as Faith Muthambi, Dina Pule or Nomvula Mokonyane.

The difference now is that the government has run out of money, and there’s nowhere to hide.

The SABC is one of the most financially delinquent of all state-owned entities, but Ndabeni-Abrahams’s ham-fisted intervention has only made it worse. This week, she sought to intervene in the retrenchment process — which, let’s face it, is inevitable if the broadcaster is to recover. But thanks to her, the retrenchments have now been suspended until January.

The SABC is vehement that the section 189 process has not been terminated, but that "additional consultations" are, however, in store.

The fact is, the SABC’s finances are in a parlous state. The broadcaster made a loss of R511m for the year to March. It is the culmination of many years of mismanagement, which peaked under the shameful tenure of former CEO and Jacob Zuma favourite Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who stacked the public broadcaster with acolytes and middle managers, which its present management team is now rightly trying to weed out.

According to a breakdown of SABC staff, 374 people are employed as middle managers, at an average salary of R1.234m each, while 489 junior managers — who earn an average R998,000 a year — roam the corridors at Auckland Park. There are also 27 senior managers, earning an average of R2.15m each, and eight top executives employed at an average cost of R3.9m.

The "rest of staff" category — 429 of them — take home only R464,000 a year, and you can be sure that this is where the real work happens.

So, it is imperative the SABC cut costs. This is why the broadcaster last year agreed to slash R700m from its salary bill, to secure a R3.2bn bailout from the National Treasury. Yet here we are, a year later, still "consulting". That the management and board haven’t done what they undertook to, is the result of relentless interference from Ndabeni-Abrahams, who still seems to believe the magic money tree will save the SABC from the consequences of its own profligacy.

She now says she wants the broadcaster "to account to the minister on the merits of continuing with the retrenchment process".

Meeting with the board this week, we are told, she "took the opportunity to implore the SABC board to consider all possible options, with an aim to preserve jobs ... and also consider the alternative voices of board members". She says "alternatives" must be considered — maybe like deploying teams to locate this magic money tree.

The fact is, SA and the SABC are bankrupt — we borrow R2.1bn every day to service our debt. The fact that the minister doesn’t grasp this means she, in particular, should be kept 1,000 miles away from the broadcaster. As, in fact, should all politicians. They’re the ones who got the SABC into this mess in the first place, after all.

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