Terry Bell: More problems ahead for the SABC

President Cyril Ramaphosa today accepted this week’s four SABC board resignations, making the board legally defunct. With four existing vacancies and the resignations, the public broadcaster is inquorate and the SABC is technically without management.

A quorate board could still be in place by early next year, following an advertisement today to fill the four earlier vacancies. Interviews of nominated individuals could be held next month, a short list presented to parliament and a decision could be finalised when Parliament gets underway on February 8. 

But the timing is tight, and arguments about who is nominated to the vacant posts is unlikely to be an easy matter. In the meantime, the swirl of allegations of political interference, personality clashes, an improper tender award, ministerial blundering and battles over looming retrenchments will continue.

And a simple — and dominant — fact remains largely lost: the request by the SABC board for a R3bn bank guarantee. Without this surety, the country’s public broadcaster is bankrupt.

Unlike SA Airways, which demanded — and got — another multi-billion rand bailout, the SABC board requested only a guarantee for a bank loan to tide it over the current crisis and restructuring. Instead the focus has been on retrenchments and, increasingly, on allegations of possible illegality in the awarding of a three-year R185m security tender.

The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) has admitted that it is investigating possible malfeasance on the part of the interim board in the tender award. Not usually mentioned, however, is that the board requested the investigation the first place.

According to several insiders and the board’s legal representative, the board was not bound to accept the recommendations of the SABC tender committee. This committee recommended three tenders, all of them within about R1m of one another.

However, the board was informed that the first company listed had been added after tenders closed, hence the investigation request. The second listed company also had a better BEE score and was duly awarded the contract.

The SIU investigation is continuing, and all of the interim board members involved in the tender decision have indicated that they are fully co-operating with the SIU. In any event, a final SIU report is only expected in March of next year and therefore seems to have no bearing on the current spate of resignations.

These appear mainly to have been triggered by the apparent reluctance of the government and treasury to provide the requested R3bn bank guarantee and the attitude adopted by then recently appointed communications minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. The requested guarantee would enable the broadcaster to phase in necessary staff losses over a longer period.

'Out of order'

The bank guarantee request had already been tabled when Ndabeni-Abrahams met with the board, after only five days in her portfolio. She asked the board to bear with her since she was so new in the post and to hold off on any job loss decisions for a time. But, in what has been described as "an amateurish diplomatic blunder" she then indicated to the board that she might issue a directive that there would be no retrenchments.

This she had no right or power to do, and the opposition Democratic Alliance was quick to point out that the minister was "completely out of order".

Board members were also infuriated, since the board is answerable to Parliament and not to the minister. A 2017 high court decision, upheld this year, has also stressed the independence of the SABC and its board, making it, in legal terms, perhaps the most independent public broadcaster anywhere.

However, with an election looming by May of next year, the governing ANC is loath to be seen to condone any job losses. And before Ndabeni-Abrahams had even met with the board, the broadcast unions had demanded — and ANC secretary-general, Ace Magashule had promised — a moratorium on job losses. The spectre of political interference loomed large.

This fact, in turn, led to accusations by the Economic Freedom Fighters and the DA that the ANC planned to collapse the SABC board.

"The only reason the ANC would want to collapse the board would be to install an interim board that would be at its beck and call," said Phumzile van Damme, the DA’s spokesperson on communications.

"Off the record" comments on all sides, do however, confirm that the SABC is grossly overstaffed, courtesy of a "jobs for pals" policy that placed incompetent individuals in posts that now have be covered, at additional cost, by experienced freelancers.

"There is a lot of duplication and wastage," admits a senior producer, "but why should it be the workers who have to suffer for mismanagement?"

There still exist hopes that the bank guarantee will be forthcoming; that a new board can quickly be put in place. But cynicism remains. Especially about any conditions that may be attached to any bank guarantee.

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