OPINION: “We are stable. People who are just talking about SABC collapsing; they are going to collapse themselves. Not SABC.” Hlaudi Motsoeneng 22/5/2015
Article summary: According to Article 16 (1) b of the Bill of Rights (Freedom of Expression) South Africans are entitled to ‘freedom to receive or impart information or ideas’ and this article argues that, without the necessity of a PAIA application, the SABC should release two reports. They are the Masinga report on the extent of infrastructure decay within the SABC and Project Kindle, the Corporation’s market research report which analysed the response of South Africans throughout the country and across all demographics to its programmes and news bulletins. Ed Herbst analyses the situation.
The fact that the preventative maintenance which ensured humankind’s survival in the coldest countries of the northern hemisphere seems not to have gained any significant traction in Africa is a politically sensitive subject which local journalists have tactfully and strategically avoided broaching.
Should you, though, question that statement then I would refer you to one of the few newspaper articles that has touched on the matter.
I was reminded of this by the anchor statement on this article which was made by Hlaudi Motsoeneng at a sumptuous, no-expense-spared banquet to announce the expansion of the footprint of the 24-hour TV news channel SABC News (DStv 404) into the rest of Africa.
We are indebted to specialist television industry reporter Thinus Ferreira for his reporting of the event.
When Motsoeneng said: “We are stable. People who are just talking about SABC collapsing; they are going to collapse themselves. Not SABC,” he was referring to financial collapse but the Sunday Times recently reported that, contrary to his optimistic assertions, the financial situation at the SABC is dire.
Here is the essence of its contentions in a story headlined: ‘As Motsoeneng rises, the SABC’s finances falter.’
“The unaudited statements seen by the Sunday Times reveal that on Motsoeneng’s watch the SABC has a projected loss of almost R400 million and a drop in cash and equivalents of almost R405 million. They also show that the SABC spent almost R420 million on freelancers, up from R334 million last year and R3.2 billion on staff, up from R2.3 billion last year.
“This suggests the SABC faces a plunge in financial fortunes of almost R1.4 billion since Motsoeneng took over rather than just R1 billion as was previously thought.”
To sum that up:
- R900 million increase in salaries of permanent staff
- R85 million increase in payments to freelancers
- R450 million decrease in liquid capital
- R 4bn decrease in profits
I would argue, however, that the SABC faces quite literal collapse as the following chronology illustrates:
11 September 2014 – Thinus Ferreira reveals that, more often than not, the lifts at the SABC do not work efficiently, that staff wait for up to10 minutes for a lift to arrive and that they are worried about their safety in this regard. I have confirmed this with former colleagues who work at Auckland Park.
23 November 2014 – The SABC confirms reports that its group head of technology Sipho Masinga has been suspended on full pay, but declined to detail the reasons behind this. This came after Ferreira disclosed that Masinga was suspended following a report he wrote in which he blamed outdated and broken infrastructure for interruptions to the national broadcaster’s service. Masinga stated that for the previous 16 years – i.e. from the start of the Mbeki era when Mbeki loyalists like Eddie Funde, Christine Qunta, Thami Mazwai, Snuki Zikalala and Dali Mpofu took control – there had been no investment in the maintenance and improvement of existing infrastructure in any of the nine provinces. He said that “… several of the SABC’s buildings in the nine provinces are unsafe and falling apart”, and that “… most broadcast studios are totally outdated and shouldn’t actually be used for broadcasting anymore”.
Furthermore, the Masinga report continued, “The situation is being worsened through the appointment of unqualified people which places a moratorium on the maintenance of existing infrastructure and investment in new technology”. He suggested that resolving the situation would cost R2 billion.
Here is a chronology of what led to Motsoeneng instructing Masinga to do a countrywide assessment of the state of the SABC’s permanent and technological infrastructure.
11 April 2014 – Television screens carrying SABC 1, 2, 3, and the SABC News channels on DStv go to black for several hours affecting viewers through the country.
3, 4 and 5 October 2014 – SABC television and radio signals temporarily disappear completely.
So what was Motsoeneng’s response to the Masinga report? Well he is not known as “action man” and the man, according to former SABC board chairperson Ellen Tshabalala who “brings stability” to the SABC for nothing and he solved the problem in an instant – he suspended Masinga! One can but marvel at such Solomonic wisdom and feel a concomitant sense of gratitude to those who spotted his nascent talent back in the early 1990s and have given him their unstinting support ever since.
Matters will now follow their usual course in the approved Phil Molefe mode – two years of paid leave followed by a multi-million rand golden handshake – they walk, you pay as The Times put it recently.
Motsoeneng, who took control of the SABC relatively, recently, cannot, however, take all the credit and I can personally attest to that. The basic building block, the foundation of broadcasting, is the instruments which record sound and visual images and in 2005 I wrote a memo to the managers of the SABC’s Western Cape news office pointing out that we effectively lacked both. I had been sent as a television news reporter, with a radio news colleague, to cover a farming story in Wellington – an hour’s drive from Cape Town. As was happening with increasing frequency, his Marantz tape recorder, which was years’ old, stopped working so he had to do his interview using the TV camera. During the interviews we had to change the camera batteries because they too were several years old and did not hold charge for more than a few minutes. (The cameras which held the batteries had substantially exceeded what the manufacturers considered a normal operating life). This meant that when we got back to Cape Town I had to wait for the video tape because the radio reporter had to transfer his interview onto another tape suitable for radio editing and I thus missed the deadline for the midday television news bulletin.
My memo received the expected reply – there was no money and I was told that we were relatively lucky. Our colleagues in the Port Elizabeth news office did not have money for paper so at the end of each month they had to approach a different paper supplier – not having the money to pay the company from which they had previously bought paper.
Inevitably the bubble bursts.
24 November 2009 – Communications minister, Siphiwe Nyanda announces that finance minister, Pravin Gordhan had approved the SABC’s application for a R1.5 billion bailout.
According to the Treasury, a “draw-down” of R1 billion would be made available immediately.
The remaining R473m would be subject to the broadcaster presenting a plan with clear revenue targets and cost-cutting measures, to enable effective oversight and monitoring
When the SABC was handed over to effective ANC control in 1992 it had R160 million in the bank and 13 years later when Peter Matlare resigned as CEO in January 2005 that amount had almost doubled.
So where had several hundred million rand gone in the four years and 10 months between January 2005 and November 2010?
Much of it had been, to use one of R W Johnson’s favourite words, “peculated”.
Much of it had been wasted. In a letter headlined ‘Making patriotism a virtue’ (Business Day 31/7/2001) Snuki Zikalala wrote: “The majority of South Africans, especially blacks, are proud of their country. They are defending and promoting their country positively and will ensure that no one tampers with their constitutional rights. My white colleagues should do the same.”
So, when Zikalala’s ‘African Al Jazeera’ (SABC International) was launched by President Thabo Mbeki on 20 July 2007 I felt that, as a patriotic South African, I should become a subscriber. This proved to be impossible. When I phoned the SABC wanting to buy the necessary decoder the response was vague. Try Joshua Doore they suggested. My uncle in the furniture business was unable to help and neither could the other major furniture retailers. Kevin Davie of the Mail & Guardian had exactly the same experience. Hundreds of millions of rands wasted on an African Renaissance vanity project that even ‘patriotic’ South Africans could not access!
Much of the money disappeared by what seemed to be nefarious means and, at the request of former SABC board members such as Suzanne Vos, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) was called in. The investigation took four years (2005 – 2009). It found, according to a Business Day report that fruitless and wasteful expenditure of R9.6m and irregular expenditure of R275.6m were incurred from September 2006 to March 2008. This was due to contracts that disregarded procurement policies and delegation of authority. It recommended the prosecution of several current SABC employees with close links to the ANC. That has not happened.
In August 2013 the then DA shadow minister of communications, Marian Shinn, revealed that the unit’s investigations had cost R19.5 million.
So what was the result of that expenditure?
Nothing of any consequence but it is interesting to see what the ANC’s deployed cadres at the SABC consider to be more important than investing in cameras and tape recorders and maintaining lifts.
World Cup tickets
R3.3 million was spent on tickets for the 2010 Soccer World Cup tickets despite Pravin Gordhan issuing explicit instructions that this should not happen.
Then there were the obligatory salary increases.
In 2008, the year in which the SABC suffered serial management failures, the senior executives rewarded themselves by massively inflating their salaries.
- Acting chief executive Gab Mampone: R1.95-million, an increase of 230%;
- Senior executive Phumelele Ntombela-Nzimande (wife of Blade): R1.7-million, an increase of 59.72%;
- Former news and current affairs boss Snuki Zikalala: R2.25-million, an increase of 46.05% ;
- Acting chief operating officer Mvuzo Mbebe: R1.9-million, an increase of 30%; and
- Chief financial officer Robin Nicholson: R3.3-million, an increase of 18.4%.
All have since left the SABC, but left with millions in their pockets.
Overseas travel at tax payers’ expense is, of course, obligatory and on one of those trips (costing hundreds of thousands of rand), (denied) newspaper reports alleged that prostitutes were patronised but not paid resulting in broadcasting trade union, BEMAWU, calling for the resignation of then board chairman, Dr Ben Ngubane.
That trend continues and it seems that the SABC management considers it more important to spend millions of rand annually on a choir which sings the praises of Hlaudi Motsoeneng than it does on fixing the Auckland Park lifts.
The Masinga report apparently suggests that it will cost R2 billion to reverse 17 years of infrastructural decay and failure to invest in new equipment. Combine that with the R1.4 billion loss which the Sunday Times argues is the consequence of the ‘stability’ which Motsoeneng has brought to the state broadcaster and you have a R3.4 billion double whammy. As tax payers, SABC TV licence payers and citizens we are constitutionally entitled to know the truth of what is happening at the SABC. In response to the Sunday Times article suggesting financial implosion as a result of mismanagement and wasteful expenditure Motsoeneng said: “Our strategy is to grow revenues by growing audiences and improving technology.”
He can easily prove both points by releasing the Masinga report and Project Kindle, the SABC’s market research exercise which revealed that far from growing audiences the SABC is reducing them by offering programmes and politically tainted news bulletins which compare poorly with what is provided by eNCA – a company that does not cost the taxpayer a cent.
As that is not going to happen I would urge R2K and/or opposition political parties to file PAIA applications for both.
In closing: With reference to the Democratic Alliance press release relating to the purge of SABC board members:
No formal complaints
At 17:55 on 23 June, News 24 posted a statement by the acting chairperson of the ANC study group on communications, Dikeledi Tsotetsi, relating to the contentious removal of the three SABC board members: “Since we have received no formal complaints from those who may have felt that they had been treated unfairly, we are of the view that it is time to close this chapter and allow the minister of communications space to continue with her work on the SABC and ensure that it delivers on its mandate.”
This seems to conflict with a statement by ousted board member Rachel Kalidass posted on the Business Day website on 27 March: “Ms Kalidass told Business Day last night: ‘I am still a member of the board because the process used (to remove me) was unlawful. People are misquoting the Companies Act and taking no notice of the current Parliamentary and legal process that is under way. This shows that the removals are motivated by malice and it is a purge.’”
It also seems to conflict with the claim by another ousted board member, Ronnie Lubisi. He says he sent a letter to the chairperson of Parliament’s communications oversight committee, Joyce Moloi-Moropa, in May asking Parliament to investigate his ‘unlawful removal’ but it doesn’t appear as though his letter was formally tabled in the portfolio committee. Why?
Did Ms Tsotetsi mislead parliament in this regard? It is to be hoped that opposition party members on the communications portfolio committee will raise this very pertinent question.
IMAGE: SABC-owned Rockland Villas in Cape Town, property asset that is not being maintained.
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