Communications minister 'deliberately misled' Parly about SABC bailout, charges DA's Van Damme

Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams deliberately withheld from Parliament that Finance Minister Tito Mboweni had turned down the South African Broadcasting Corporation's application for a guarantee, Phumzile van Damme has charged.

In a statement, the DA MP and spokesperson on communications quoted a letter from Mboweni declining the application, dated June 25, 2019, which read, "I therefore do not concur to the issuance of the R3.2bn guarantee."

In June, it emerged that government had been considering the R3.2bn guarantee to help the struggling broadcaster raise money from lenders.

Van Damme had harsh criticism for both the finance minister and the communications minister, saying they did not properly understand the mandate of the SABC, and calling on them to continue negotiations on its financing.

Van Damme labelled the contents of the letter "problematic", saying they "reveal[ed] a Finance Minister who does not understand the mandate of the Communications Department vis-à-vis that SABC."

'Flabbergasting'

The letter describes the SABC as "ultimately only an implementing agent for the Department of Communications", a statement Van Damme described as "flabbergasting".

"The Broadcasting Act and as confirmed in High Court in the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition judgment makes the SABC’s independence clear," said Van Damme.

She called on Mboweni to "properly appraise himself on the role and mandate of the SABC", and continue negotiations regarding its funding "with this knowledge in mind".

'No understanding'

Van Damme further argued that Ndabeni-Abrahams herself had "made it patently clear that she also has no understanding of her role over the public broadcaster".

She added, "We have already requested that the Minister of Communications work with the SABC in good faith and putting aside her personal feelings about the SABC which has firmly established its independence, including fearlessly reporting on her attempts to block SABC journalists from covering protests at an ANC manifesto launch.

"Her reported bad-mouthing of the SABC would no doubt also have happened at National Treasury."

The SABC played an important role in upholding democracy, Van Damme emphasised, saying the broadcaster's management and board could not be blamed for its current financial crisis.

"They are working hard in the most trying circumstances," she said.  

The public broadcaster has faced a slew of problems, including large debts. Its liquidity challenges are affecting its status as a going concern, and it has faced long-term management instability.

Four of its board members resigned late in 2018, creating vacancies that needed to be filled urgently. Once the new board was appointed, one of its first actions was axing COO Chris Maroleng on various charges, including gross negligence.

Fin24 reached out to both National Treasury and the Department of Communications for a response to Van Damme's remarks. Treasury redirected Fin24 to the Department of Communications, which did not respond.

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