Last Sunday’s City Press contained an explosive story with the headline, ANC warns SABC on job cuts (July 5 2020).
The story correctly reports that this “is the second time in less than 24 months that the SABC’s attempts to cut its wage bill are running into political resistance”.
Interestingly, the story generated a fascinating public discussion on political analyst, lecturer and writer Eusebius McKaiser’s Facebook page, with his statement that: “NO ONE is entitled to a job for life. NO ONE is entitled to be kept employed if genuinely redundant and useless. The SABC cannot be an exception to these rules … the idea of a bloated SABC as a fact of South African life must come to an end.”
McKaiser’s former colleague, Karima Brown, agreed with him, posting: “I support a thorough clean-up of the SABC... It’s long overdue.
"And it is bloated. And talented people are often suffocated and under pressure. From a coterie of careerists who are in fact just glorified civil servants waiting out their time. And abusing their privilege. I worked there remember. For nine years.”
A number of other people agreed too.
But in the political interference to retrenchments from two years ago, which City Press reported was a bipartisan affair, with the DA’s communications spokesperson Phumzile van Damme calling for a skills audit to be conducted by SABC management prior to the commencement of retrenchments, she got her way.
The skills audit is largely done and its revelations are breathtaking.
In its June 24 turnaround update presentation to Parliament, the SABC reported that, while 908 staff members had an exact match of qualifications to job occupation and a further 278 had qualifications that exceeded their job specifications, 826 employees had no match in relation to qualifications for the job they occupied. This did not come as a surprise.
In its executive summary of its report, the independent commission into editorial interference at the SABC, headed by veteran journalist Joe Thloloe, specifically recommended that former SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s “instructions to human resources to … promote or appoint others must be reviewed”.
It is well known that Motsoeneng packed the SABC middle management with his enforcers – people who owed their jobs to him, not to their qualifications or skills.
The result is a bloated staff, which leads to an unsustainable wage bill. Again, this is not new.
In handing out bail-outs in 2010, Treasury had insisted on retrenchments, which were not done.
In 2017, Parliament itself instructed the SABC to review irregular appointments and insisted that corrective measures be implemented.
And so, here we are.
A review of MultiChoice’s expenditure versus the SABC’s is revealing. MultiChoice (the operator of M-Net and DStv) reported in its results (posted online) that approximately 15% of its expenditure is on staff and a healthy 43% on content.
Our public broadcaster is in the opposite position – extrapolating from its latest financials – 41% of its expenditure goes to its wage bill, with a paltry 22% going to local and international content.
This is a woeful state of affairs for the public broadcaster to find itself in.
But it comes as no surprise that, despite the demands of Treasury that the wage bill be slashed, including through retrenchments, and demands by Parliament that irregular appointments be rectified, the ANC is rapidly losing the taste for retrenchments as next year’s local government elections loom large.
This is what parties do – keep the base onside in the run-up to an election.
What is surprising, though, is that some of Motsoeneng’s loudest critics appear to have become some of the current SABC management’s – and board’s – loudest ones too.
Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki, for example, is well known for her courageous stand (along with the others in the so-called SABC 8) against Motsoeneng’s censorship.
In a passionate response to McKaiser’s post, Gqubule-Mbeki says that “there are 1 000 ways to reduce the wage bill that are gentle and humane”.
She argues for salary cuts all round, job-sharing, performance management, hiring freezes and the like.
She announced that she would wear black and embark on a hunger strike.
The problem is that, while Gqubule-Mbeki makes an excellent case for vigorous public spending on the public mandate of the public broadcaster, she’s firing at the wrong target.
She needs to be taking aim at:
- Government, which contributes only 3% in direct funding to the SABC and has done so for decades;
- The failure by successive ministers to regulate the collection of the TV licence fee properly; and
- The Independent Communications Authority of SA for a regulatory environment that has failed to secure the integrity and viability of the SABC, something that is required by legislation.
Without drastically reducing the SABC’s wage bill, which is clearly out of kilter with industry norms, we will not get a public broadcaster that is able to spend serious money on the local content needed to execute on the public mandate.
Limpitlaw is an electronic communications law consultant and visiting adjunct professor at Link Centre, Wits University