OPINION | Managing the SABC into the ground: A long-term exercise in venality and stupidity

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Sheldon Morias

The SABC will not be a true public broadcaster as long as present management structures are in place and as long as there is any government involvement, writes Cobus Bester. 

The SABC will probably not close its doors in the near future.

But the decision to retrench a large number of staffers and plans for its execution, will leave audiences with a mere shadow of what the SABC once was, after years of mismanagement and dishonesty that is typical of most of the country's SOEs.

It is quite clear that the profitability and the professional abilities of specific units were not considered when targets for retrenchment had to be selected. How else do you explain the decision to target all, but two, of the members of the highly profitable and well-run Afrikaans national station, RSG? The station will be left with its manager, who is not far from retirement, and her secretary.

READ | All RSG presenters affected by SABC retrenchments - reports

According to insiders who do not want to be named for fear of reprisal, RSG will be required to convert itself into a music station with occasional news and current affairs. This is a blatant denial of the mandate given to all so-called public broadcast stations. There supposedly has to be one for each of the country's language groups.

For years now, management at that station, under the leadership of the late Sarel Myburgh, and now in the capable hands of Magdalene Kruger, found ways of tweaking station content subtly enough to retain probably the most loyal listener group of all, while steadily drawing in a new audience, most of whom are not white. A dramatic change for a station which used to be so staid and conservative.

It is not clear how other language stations have been affected, including SAfm, which has for long been misleadingly marketed as the corporation's "flagship station".

The steady demolition of the SABC has not been an overnight affair. There were many stages over the years which one could perhaps point to as the "beginning of the end". It would also be a mistake to lay it entirely at the door of the ANC and its cronies, no matter how large a role they ultimately played in presenting us with the wreck which is the SABC today.

A public broadcaster will always come under pressure from the government of the day and other political entities. Ask the BBC. And it has been no different with the SABC.

The corporation, especially its news department, became a National Party and Broederbond target from the early 50s.

The highly rated Gideon Roos was pushed out as director-general when it was realised that the non-broeder supported the neutrality of the SABC as guaranteed by its charter. Then came John Vorster. And then came Botha and Botha - the era of PW and Pik's "bright young men".  PW, a president no longer able to control his bullying nature following several strokes had Pik Botha and his gophers phone the SABC, demanding special treatment. Sadly, some of our colleagues agreed.

There is a story yet to be told about the much-maligned senior newsman who spent many afternoons during parliamentary sessions having tea with Elize Botha, briefing her on how to placate an angry PW who had a permanent bee in his bonnet about placing the SABC under the control of Military Intelligence(MI). Ominously, MI already had more than one member embedded as a senior "journalist". It came closer than most will realise.


So, interference at the SABC was not a new thing when the 90s came around, although it subsided somewhat after FW de Klerk took the reins. Those days were marked by an influx of new board members, new senior and not so senior journalists, and managers in various other departments. Some were good and clearly intent on being fair and constructive in difficult circumstances. Franz Krüger in Radio News springs to mind. But many were not. Certainly not in their newly chosen field. Their negative long-term influence on the SABC was exacerbated by their clear distrust of those they found there. The corporation still suffers from some of the rash decisions taken by the late Allister Sparks and others.

Since the days of Zwelakhe Sisulu, the SABC has seen nine or 10 chief executives and dozens of other supposed management experts come and go. Only one stands out as having been very good - too good, in fact. Peter Matlare had to go to make way for someone more pliable in the government's hands. But mostly, the others stand out for having been either thoroughly inept or thoroughly dishonest. One got fired for something for which he likely should have been jailed. When a court found his dismissal to have been unprocedural, he was paid millions to not come back.

READ | SABC job cuts back on the table, workers to strike

And then there was Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Those who lied and conspired to keep Motsoeneng in a job were handsomely rewarded and some are still in positions at the SABC. So are many of his willing henchmen, long after he departed. So is the shattered mess he left behind. Don't forget the SABC 8.

This week's news that the SABC had served a large number of its staffers with a so-called Section 189 letters was simply the culmination of many years of mismanagement and often criminal stupidity.

The bloodletting now under way is clearly aimed at the last remnants of experience and excellence at the SABC.

Turnaround strategy 

So, who is running the SABC? Who decided on a turnaround strategy for the corporation and that it should start with a round of retrenchments?

It was done by a top management of whom only one person was said to have had a bit of broadcast experience. They would have been assisted by a number of senior and middle managers who know that they have nowhere else to go if they lose their jobs at the SABC, and a consultant - I don't know who, but at today's SABC there is always a highly-paid consultant somewhere in the works. The SABC senior ranks haven't been able to manage without consultants for years. 

But let us be fair. The events at SABC are the end result of a chain of ineptitude, cronyism and breathtaking stupidity which started at that nursery of crassness, the South African Parliament. This has included a parade of really poor ministers of communication, ably supported by a portfolio committee of which only one or two members have ever had any notion of what broadcasting should be about.

Most of them are there to ensure that Luthuli House keeps its hands on the SABC's "levers of power". They did this by ensuring that politically acceptable non-entities were pushed onto the SABC's board who, in turn, ensured that acceptable functionaries retained power in the SABC's top management. Simple.

Years in the making

All this didn't happen overnight. It's been years in the making. The recent travesty called Hlaudi Motsoeneng was simply the most visible sign of the idiocy the corporation has had to bear over many years. Little was ever said or done about the growing number of senior plodders who, except for being totally inept at doing their jobs, were caught with their claws in the till and still got awarded handsome "golden handshakes" to leave and go plunder elsewhere. An astonishing number got pushed, only to pop up somewhere in a senior appointment in government or even the private sector.

READ | SABC warns it is at a financial crossroad as dept says board acted in bad faith

I believe South Africa must have a public broadcaster. I believe with the right people in control it can still be turned around to the benefit of all South Africans. I also believe this can never succeed as long as the present management structures are in place and as long as there is any government involvement in its existence. Maybe what we should have had, what we still can have, is a broadcasting Codesa involving all the major private sector broadcasting entities, news, cultural and sports organisations and, most importantly, leading public broadcasters of the past. Let them sit down and thrash it out. And keep the politicians and their cronies away. Otherwise, just shut it down. We'll find another way.

- Cobus Bester is a former Economics Editor and Current Affairs presenter at the SABC.

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