THE INDUSTRIAL relations mess that exists within the SABC at the moment highlights many of the problems facing the trade union movement, and not only in South Africa. At root is the loss by unions of the democratic traditions that have seen labour leaders having more in common with the corporate world than with the sellers of labour.
This is a world where union officials - 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 and so on to parliament and, finally (even instantly) into the cabinet.
Then there is the all too close relationship of big business with government, over and above the blatant state capture machinations of recent times. This enables ministers of state to move seamlessly from Parliament to the boardrooms of major corporations. And sometimes, having accumulated wealth in business, there is a desire to return to the political arena, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and aspirant returnee Jay Naidoo being classic examples.
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 a great trade union ballad: “One is workers’ unity and evermore shall be so.” Because there seems to be little general unity and solidarity among workers whether or not they are members of the two unions that remain in place at the public broadcaster.
And, as media workers, there should be an obligation to adhere to journalistic principles, to endeavour to play their roles in ensuring the free flow of information that is as accurate and truthful as possible. United, this can be achieved.
But many, perhaps most, workers in some SABC sections are not only not unionised, they are 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, they have had enough of managerial arrogance, corruption, bungling and incompetence. However, many tend now to be wary of trade unions.
The situation is complicated because, while the corporation was being bankrupted, leaving a debt of at least R165m, management handed out some largesse, along with often elaborate promises.
These included, for example, R50 000 lump sum payments to musicians while long-term freelance or “contract workers” were also promised permanent jobs by the notorious SABC chief, Hlaudi Motsoeneng who awarded himself three pay rises in a year.
The unions — and most workers — also seem to have been placated by marginally above inflation pay rises over the past five years. And there seems to have been no protest when, in 2015, the corporation outsourced licence fee collection, despite employing 164 staff to do that job.
Licence fee revenue steadily declined, perhaps a reflection of the cost of the lucrative outsourced contract. But there were no strong union or worker demands to follow the money. Significantly, since the cancellation of the contact, bringing fee collection in-house, revenues have apparently doubled in the past six months.
There was also little union protest as the finances of the SABC collapsed amid widespread intimidation of workers. This despite the fact that 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 in support of Motsoeneng. As a result, the Broadcasting Electronic Media and Allied Workers’ Union (Bemawu) gained members, but also failed to react adequately to the growing crisis.
Two years later, as the “8” were sacked, the CWU staged its twentieth anniversary gala dinner and invited Motsoeneng and his defiantly arrogant superior, then communications minister Faith Muthambi, as guests of honour.
The situation was further complicated when yet another union stepped in to provide legal support to two of the SABC 8. The fact that Solidarity, the general union whose roots lie with the fiercely racist Mynwerkersunie of old gave legal support, allowed the race card to be played in what was an already quite toxic political mix.
This is the situation the new board inherited, along with a huge debt. And the government appears still to be trying to exercise control over the insolvent public broadcaster.
Because of the dire financial situation, the board proposed a pay freeze until the financial situation could be stabilised. This saw Bemawu and the CWU coming together briefly to announce a strike before the CWU backtracked. Amid accusations of sabotage, back stabbing and ministerial interference, the atmosphere became quite poisonous.
However, despite the existing mess, workers united could still act together to ensure that the SABC becomes what democrats everywhere would wish it to be: the primary communications medium in the service of the people as a whole.
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