THE BLOG

There Is Gangrenous Rot At The Ailing National Broadcaster

The parliamentary ad hoc committee hearings revealed an appalling list of failure, loss, mismanagement, political interference and downright incompetence.

17/10/2017 03:58 SAST
ewn.co.za
SABC Television Park.

My doctor and I share a running joke when I consult her about my occasional medical ailments. I teasingly challenge her diagnosis with my 'extensive' medical knowledge derived from having performed the role of doctor six times in my performance career.

I would rattle off my body weight, blood pressure and cholesterol readings and she would laughingly counter by saying that these results only give a limited, and often distorted, snapshot of what my true state of health is.

When this vignette played out again recently it struck me how easy it is to reduce the state of the SABC to a spreadsheet of hair-raising headline facts and figures, and to extend the analogy, how limited this data would be in revealing the true extent of the gangrenous rot at the ailing national broadcaster:

  • A R411m loss in 2016, followed by a monumental R1.1b loss in 2017.
  • SABC TV audiences fell to 45 percent of audience share in mid-2016.
  • Scopa's report revealed that more than R5b was lost in 2016 due to irregular expenditure and the lack of financial controls at SABC.
  • The Parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee hearings revealed a long and appalling list of failure, loss, mismanagement, political interference and downright incompetence.

But these are just the headlines. The fact that many South Africans were not particularly surprised by the findings of the ad hoc committee reveals something closer to the truth of the SABC's actual state of health: there is a breakdown in trust between the national broadcaster, its audience and its partners. This, more than anything is the catastrophe at the core of the SABC, and it is self-inflicted.

The SABC mandate clearly articulates what lies at the heart of its remit. It speaks of reflecting a range of South African views, offering platforms for a plurality of voices, nation-building and promoting diversity, however, viewers are not convinced that these ideals and values are anything more than window-dressing.

Gone were the checks and balances necessary to maintain sound corporate governance and fiduciary care and nothing short of parliamentary intervention was able to stop the rampant lunacy.

The influence and participation of the richly diverse SA audience has been usurped by an insidious, politically engineered strategy to filter business practices through a compliant board and a hand-picked team of executive officers who apparently cared very little for the broadcaster's stated values.

These directors and executives became the power brokers of the SABC, manipulating purse strings, adjusting or ignoring policies while enjoying ministerial protection. The SABC inquiry revealed that the then-minister of Communications, Faith Muthambi, had unlawfully amended the SABC's Articles of Association to intentionally bypass the oversight role of the board, in effect giving executive officers a direct reporting line to the minister.

Gone were the checks and balances necessary to maintain sound corporate governance and fiduciary care and nothing short of parliamentary intervention was able to stop the rampant lunacy.

While industry stakeholders and audiences exerted a brief period of creative influence from 1994, so did the independent production sector.

This sector is a major partner to the SABC and comprises of independent producers, freelance writers, directors, performers and a host of service providers (make-up artists, technical crew etc.) who all collaborate to produce SABC's most-watched TV shows. In 1997, driven by the spirit of participative democracy, the SABC called for stakeholder engagement to thrash out a comprehensive performers' contract that established the rules for fair treatment, remuneration and a balance of rights and obligations on all SABC-commissioned productions.

The result became known as the standard SABC Freelance Performer's Agreement and secured a three-way relationship between the performer, the producer and the broadcaster. This agreement was significant because performers were granted benefits that guaranteed a right to earn a portion of the net profit every time the SABC sold or licensed a production the actor featured in.

So for example, when one of the SABC soapies is sold or licensed to another broadcaster, a deal is struck that typically gives the SABC a profit. If the performer is a member of the principal cast of the show, they (along with the writer and producer) enjoy a contractual right to enter into negotiations with the SABC to claim a portion of that profit.

Have we learnt anything from our past failures in responsible governance and transparent democratic process? It seems not.

We are now 20 years into the adoption of this binding agreement, and to date, the SABC is yet to engage in meaningful negotiations for the payment of those fees. The result is that the SABC now owes untold millions of rands to performers, producers and writers (many who have since passed away) and we are no closer to a resolution than we were 20 years ago.

Of course, the SABC had no issue in awarding its previous COO, the unfathomable Hlaudi Motsoeneng, a massive R11m bonus for securing a deal that offered SABC entertainment content to Multichoice to the value of R533m.

At the time this article was written the president had missed by several weeks the deadline to ratify the new SABC board.

In the absence of a board, the minister once again enjoys unfettered access to the executive and we are ready to start the perverse cycle all over again. Have we learnt anything from our past failures in responsible governance and transparent democratic process? It seems not.

Perhaps the headlines are the healthiest part of this dark and desolate picture.