THE SABC is the public broadcaster, with a constitutional mandate that is largely publicly funded. In parliamentarians' role of holding entities to account, we act on behalf of the people of South Africa and our constitution.
What we have seen unfolding at our once great broadcaster is nothing short of a disaster. Starting with the brave SABC journalists who came out some years ago to expose rot and corruption, followed by a formal parliamentary enquiry, financial ruin, failing infrastructure, unsafe and unsanitary work environments, the sale of company assets and a lack of any feasible turnaround strategy, it would seem we have taken two steps forward and 20 back.
Things are so dire that the communications and digital technologies portfolio committee was asked to bar the media, the public and fellow MPs from a meeting about the so-called turnaround strategy. More disturbingly, permission for this was granted.
Closed meetings undermine parliamentary accountability and transparency. And as the constitution and committee rules state, the public may not be excluded from committee sittings “unless it is reasonable and justified to do so in an open and democratic society”.
There was no reason to close that meeting to the public. If the SABC had nothing to hide from the very people it is meant to serve, the chairperson should have had no problem in granting my request to open the full meeting.
At the end of September, the cabinet approved the new SABC Bill and submitted it to parliament. The bill is meant to provide the SABC with an updated mandate for the digital era. It was also supposed to provide a new funding model but fails to do so, meaning the public broadcaster has to continue operating on its 1999 funding model.
The bill also creates a commercial board but does not task it with finalising a funding model. It is obvious the board is out of its depth and has no solution to offer. Where are the broadcasting experts?
The bill was supposed to signal a turning of the page, particularly as the SABC prepares for next year’s election. The broadcaster and its partners need certainty. Instead, the cabinet has missed another opportunity. The commercial board, which will report to the main board, will be responsible only for “public commercial audio and audiovisual content media services”. It is shocking that the cabinet would approve legislation that adds nine more executives, who will probably earn millionaire salaries, without tasking them to resolve the SABC’s finances,
The SABC’s current model relies on public funding from the fiscus and from TV licences. The SABC needs more than R2 billion annually and continually falls short of this target because its funding model is outdated. TV licences have long proven to be unsuitable. The evasion rate has continued to increase, climbing to 87% in 2023, and the SABC is owed R44 billion in unpaid licence fees, a massive financial hole that successive ministers have failed to address. The SABC was also a target of ANC-sponsored state capture and has not turned a profit in more than a decade. This year, it reported a loss of R1.13 billion.
The bill is a disservice to the public broadcaster and to South Africans. Parliament must reject it and establish a team of market experts to draw up solutions to the SABC funding crisis.
The switchover from analogue to digital must be fast-tracked to keep up with technological developments, and it must be done in an open and transparent fashion. South Africans have the right to a public broadcasting service that offers entertainment as well as free and impartial news, free of misinformation and disinformation and guaranteeing fair coverage to all players, especially in the run-up to a national election.
This is not an unreasonable request, and South Africans have already displayed a great deal of patience and grace. Now the buck has to stop with someone, and it cannot be to the detriment of the South African public.
Given the cost of living crisis, mismanagement and maladministration at an all-time high and a demoralised staff, the SABC is now on the cliff's edge. The government can either let it fall into oblivion or admit there is a massive problem that can be solved by only with a collective effort, free from political interference.
The SABC urgently needs the intervention of market experts who hold no mandate other than to restore the public broadcaster to a going concern that South Africans will never again have to bail out.
* Natasha Mazzone is a DA MP and a member of the communications and digital technologies portfolio committee. She was previously the party's chief whip.
♦ VWB ♦
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