Inside labour: SABC needs loyal union leaders to serve

The industrial relations mess that exists within the SABC highlights many of the problems facing the trade union movement in South Africa and the world.

At root is the unions’ loss of their democratic traditions that have seen labour leaders having more in common with the corporate world than with their members.

This is a world where union officials, who are almost always men, “play the bosses’ game” and are rewarded accordingly.

There are plenty of local examples of those who have made the smooth transition from state employ to union leadership, then to parliament and finally, sometimes even instantly, into the Cabinet.

Then there is the all too close relationship of big business with government. This enables ministers of state to move seamlessly from parliament to the boardrooms of major corporations.

That is the broad picture, but the contained chaos at the SABC has its own peculiarities.

However, it too is certainly a far cry from that line in the great trade union ballad: “One is workers’ unity and evermore shall be so.”

There seems to be little general unity and solidarity among workers and the two unions that remain in place at the public broadcaster.

Many, perhaps most, workers in some sections are not only not unionised, but they are also not classified as employees – highlighting again the issue of outsourcing.

But like the SABC 8 who stood up against censorship last year and were sacked, the workers have had enough of managerial arrogance, corruption, bungling and incompetence. However, they also tend to be wary of trade unions.

The situation is complicated because while the corporation was being bankrupted, the bosses handed out some largesse along with often elaborate promises including, for example, R50 000 lump sum payments to musicians.

Long-term freelance or contract workers were also promised permanent jobs while the then notorious SABC chief executive, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, awarded himself three pay rises within a year.

Although the SABC employed 164 people in licence collection, this facet was outsourced and licence revenues to the corporation steadily declined.

Meanwhile, nobody followed the money and despite the above-inflation pay rises promised and delivered with little regard for the parlous state of SABC finances, the unions remained largely mute.

This despite the fact that then public protector Thuli Madonsela had – in 2014 – called for action to be taken against Motsoeneng and other senior staffers.

Madonsela found that Motsoeneng’s appointment was irregular, as were his salary increases.

He had also systematically purged dissenting staff members.

Against this background, the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) joined a Hlaudi Motsoeneng Coalition that campaigned to support Motsoeneng.

Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers’ Union members looked on aghast, but the union did not adequately react. As a result, there was little union recruitment.

Two years later, as the eight were sacked, the CWU staged an anniversary gala dinner and invited Motsoeneng and his equally defiant and arrogant superior, communications minister Faith Muthambi as guests of honour.

The new board inherited quite a toxic political mix, along with a debt of R165 million. The government is still trying to control the management and direction of the insolvent public broadcaster.

Because of the dire situation, the board proposed a pay freeze until the financial situation could be stabilised.

This saw the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers’ Union and the CWU briefly joined together to announce a strike before falling out with one another amid accusations of sabotage, back-stabbing and ministerial interference.

It’s a mess, but workers united could still act together to ensure that the SABC becomes what democrats everywhere would wish it to be.

It has the potential to become the primary communications medium in the service of the people as a whole.

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