General secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Zwelinzima Vavi, has written an open letter to the chair of the SABC board, Ellen Tshabalala, asking for a meeting to discuss the ongoing crisis at management and board level.
Vavi says Cosatu believes the SABC is still far from fulfilling its mandate and that the “underlying reason is that the SABC has been, and still is, plagued by seemingly intractable governance crises and financial problems at the level of the Board and management”. He also called for an investigation into the allegations made by the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, in her report on maladministration at the public broadcaster titled ‘When governance and ethics fail’.
“Cosatu backs the demand, by the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and Broadcast, Electronic Media and Allied Workers Union (BEMAWU), that the Minister of Communications urgently order a proper investigation and decisive action into allegations made by the Public Protector in her report titled ‘When governance and ethics fail’ which has implicated members of the board, executives of the SABC and senior management in, inter alia, maladministration and abuse of power,” Vavi wrote.
The SOS Coalition welcomed the Cosatu letter, saying that since its inception in 2008, the Coalition had been at the forefront of the call for the rescue of the SABC “from the many forces which have stripped its power and ability to be a successful people’s broadcaster”.
“We recognise that not all of the challenges facing our public broadcaster are of its own making. As Vavi points out, the SABC’s disproportionate reliance on commercial funding has had a profoundly negative impact on its ability to meet its mandate to ‘reflect South African attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity’. Further to this have been instances of executive interference in the running of Board processes as was highlighted by the Public Protector in her damning report When governance and Ethics Fail,” said spokesperson Sekoetlane Phamodi in a statement.
Vavi said the SABC should play a “central role” in South Africa. “The SABC is by far the most important media structure in South Africa, with 4 TV and 18 radio stations. Its reach and coverage surpasses any other media institution and it should plays a central role in our democracy by keeping people well informed and giving them a voice,” he wrote.
Vavi pointed out that since 2007 the SABC has had three boards, two interim boards, six CEOs, resignations by board members, as well as serious allegations of corruption and waste of resources.
“The latest crisis hit the SABC in February 2014, with the resignation of its group CEO, Lulama Mokhobo, just two years into her five-year term. She was reported to be going because her situation has become untenable, as two centres of power have emerged, one in her own office and the other in the office of acting group chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng.
“These leadership battles and the absence of any consistent leadership at the top filter down into the staff, whose often excellent work keeps being undermined by a lack of clear lines of command, combined with uncertainty about the future. All this ultimately impacts on the quality of programming,” he said.
Vavi also said Cosatu agreed with the two unions’ demand for a full and proper investigation of the allegations by PriceWaterhouseCoopers in skills audit on SABC top and executive management. The report found that, “with the exception of a few, the executive of the SABC was found to be seriously lacking, in particular in respect of strategic skills which at their level are vital for any organisation to exist”.
Unions CWU and BEMAWU have complained that the SABC is in a “sorry state, with repeats being broadcast, even on news, and millions of rands are pushed into new projects like the 24 hour news channel broadcast on a not free to air channel and only accessible to the few privileged who can afford DStv subscription”.
This, said Vavi, was leading to a “real danger” of opening up a class divide, “as in other areas of social life – with a two-tier structure, providing a good quality service for a small rich elite who subscribe to DStv and poor service for the majority”.
A major problem was financial, Vavi said. “Almost 80% of its funding comes from advertising, which has forced the SABC, especially its TV stations, to base its programming overwhelmingly on commercial criteria – the potential revenue from advertisers and sponsors,” he wrote.
“So although the corporation is a public institution answerable to Parliament, it is forced to operate as if it is a commercial entity. This has forced the SABC, especially its TV stations, to base its programming overwhelmingly on the potential revenue from advertising and sponsorship.”
Vavi said the SABC should urgently implement the ANC’s policy on the SABC that was detailed in a resolution at the party’s Mangaung conference.
This included an increase in funding to the SABC, “implemented progressively over a reasonable period”.
“Government funding however cannot be an unconditional blank cheque, but ring-fenced and targeted towards public programmes on education, health, poverty eradication, rural development, crime prevention and other societal priorities, which are miniscule compared to entertainment-based programming,” Vavi said.
Read Vavi’s full open letter here.
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