Behind the SABC debacle

Posted on December 10, 2018

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

In the wake of this, there have been allegations that the resignations were triggered by the fact that board members were being investigated by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU). The investigation relates to a three-year security tender worth some R185 million which the board awarded to a company that had quoted more than R1 million more than the quote recommended by the tender committee.

However, because of “inconsistencies” in the recommendations given to the board by the committee, the board requested an investigation. Unrelated to the security tender, members of the tender committee were subsequently dismissed following a disciplinary hearing.

According to SABC insiders, the deputy chair of supply chain management (the tender committee) was also found not to have disclosed two outstanding charges for fraud when she was appointed. The charges involve a total of some R6.5 million and were laid in 2015 at the Lyttleton police station.

The SIU has admitted that it is investigating possible malfeasance on the part of the board in the tender award. Not usually mentioned, however, is the fact that the board requested an 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 R1 million of one another. However, the board was informed that the first company listed had been added after tenders closed, hence the investigation request. It was also claimed that he second listed company had a better Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) score and was duly awarded the contract.

The SIU investigation is continuing and all of the 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 recent resignations.

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

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 to 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 (DA) was quick to point out that the minister was “completely out of order”. Her statement also came after Ace Magashule, secretary-general of the governing ANC had announced that no retrenchments would be tolerated.

Several board members were expressed anger since the board is answerable to parliament and not to the minister. A 2017 high court decision, upheld this year, 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 ANC is loathe to be seen to condone any job losses. So the spectre of political interference looms large.

This, in turn, has led to accusations by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) 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 shadow communications minister.

“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?” she asks.

Among several senior SABC staff, 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 from government.

But a quorate board could be in place by early next year. An advertisement was placed last week to fill the four earlier four vacancies and interviews of nominated individuals could be held next month. A short list of members for a new, quorate, board could then be presented to parliament and a decision 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, improper tender awards, ministerial blundering and battles over looming retrenchments will continue.

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