Ministers blow hot and cold on SABC

Tito Mboweni
Tito Mboweni

It was another tumultuous week for the SABC, with the communications and finance ministries apparently blowing hot and cold when it comes to assisting with a R1.3 billion loan guarantee that the public broadcaster desperately needs to stay on air.

Last week City Press reported on a parliamentary communications briefing during which Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams questioned the strength of the SABC’s turnaround plan but did not reveal that she had received a letter on June 25 from her colleague, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, declining to assist with a R3.2 billion guarantee request.

The letter caused alarm at the broadcaster with senior industry sources saying it [the letter] could lead one of the SABC’s creditors to initiate liquidation proceedings.

Parliamentary sources said there had been discussion about whether Ndabeni-Abrahams had misled Parliament by not disclosing that she had received the letter.

But on Tuesday at the department’s budget vote – which Mboweni attended – Ndabeni-Abrahams and her team presented a very different tone with Deputy Minister of Communications Pinky Kekana praising the broadcaster’s cost-cutting measures and elections coverage.

Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams

But the DA’s Phumzile van Damme accused Ndabeni-Abrahams of trying to “push the SABC off the edge” of the cliff that it had been led to by former boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng because its new board and executive would not bow to her control.

On Thursday in Parliament Mboweni announced that the broadcaster would receive some temporary relief from the contingency reserve but warned that the lifeline – how much is still not clear – was not “a blank cheque. We really and truly cannot carry on like this.”

SABC insiders are angered that Mboweni is not acknowledging that the new management inherited the financial crisis and that a skilled and experienced executive is in place. They say the ministers need to “stop the interference and inject the necessary capital, with increased oversight”.

Various industry sources this week pointed to a decade-long pattern from the communications ministry, formerly under the questionable leadership of Dina Pule and Faith Muthambi, with Ndabeni-Abrahams serving time as their deputies, believing that the unpredictable behaviour is a means of trying to control the broadcaster.

The sources believe Ndabeni-Abrahams is trying to make life hell for her SABC enemies so that they resign and can be replaced by leaders who don’t hold their independence to be as dear.

These thoughts were put through to Ndabeni-Abrahams, who responded through her spokesperson, Nthabeleng Mokitimi-Dlamini, and said: “The minister has reiterated her commitment on working with the SABC board ... The minister is aware that this will not be an easy task as the public broadcaster has, for a while now, been in the news for all the wrong reasons.

"This includes needing financial bailouts from National Treasury, and some board members resigning, among other challenges.

“Contrary to reports that the minister misled Parliament about no bailout being forthcoming, the minister is on record saying engagements with National Treasury on financial assistance to the SABC would continue. The interim relief is a result of these continued engagements.

“Unsubstantiated, frivolous and malicious allegations and theories that the minister wants to see the back of four so-called ‘defiant’ board members and control the SABC, will not be entertained.”

Treasury did not respond to queries from City Press.

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