LETTER TO THE EDITOR | SABC crisis: Role and vision need to be redefined

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The South African Broadcasting Corporation, the country's public broadcaster, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent times. (Photo by AMA/Corbis via Getty Images)
The South African Broadcasting Corporation, the country's public broadcaster, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent times. (Photo by AMA/Corbis via Getty Images)

Former SABC group CEO Wynand Harmse responds to an opinion piece written by Cobus Bester on the public broadcaster.

Cobus Bester's article on how the SABC has arrived at this terrible point in time, is indeed interesting and valuable insight.

I spent almost all of my working life at the SABC, oversaw the finances for almost three decades and served as group CEO during the most hectic political era in our country's history. In my view, and my experience, it is a given that in this country of many races, cultures and languages, the public broadcaster will always be exposed to the greedy claws of politicians. The ruling party is the most dangerous in this respect.

In my comprehensive book (published some two years ago) on the history of the SABC, including its political role in a changing South Africa, I discuss the various political (policy) phases the SABC's staff had to contend with. First the ideal situation of "reflector" of political developments (Gideon Roos' era); then "persuader" by being an active promoter of separate development/apartheid (Piet Meyer's era of 20 years); to a turnaround of 180 degrees, in line with NP political thinking, questioning the workability of apartheid's model as well as the fairness of the discriminatory laws (Riaan Eksteen's era; he was appointed from within the broadcasting minister Pik Botha's own department); and then the transitional period (when I was CEO).

The detail hereof serves as ample proof of the abuse by politicians of this otherwise precious and beloved organisation. SABC news journalists deserve a lot of credit for the way they managed to keep South Africans informed under very difficult and strenuous circumstances.

A prestigious institution

An important point I want to convey is this: The SABC pre-1994 was widely regarded as a prestigious institution. Why? Despite its support of a specific political model or thinking (as referred to above), hard news and actuality were widely accepted as credible; the quality and quantity in terms of the variety of programmes covering the full spectrum of life, served all language and cultural groups and promoted the local and traditional. It was a dedicated, real PBS broadcaster.

But even more, the SABC was always a well-managed and effective organisation with very strict financial discipline. There were never any bailouts or financial assistance. The depth of technological expertise and skills used to be exceptional. A comparison of any of these to the present state of affairs reflects a very sad narrative.

And today? The planned retrenchments are a short-term problem. The SABC's dilemma is long term and might end up in a scrutiny of the right of existence.

My plea, as put in an open letter to the SABC, the union and the Communications Portfolio Committee of Parliament, is for a review of the funding model, which is currently outdated and inappropriate, with particular attention on licence fees. It is a plea to redefine the role, vision and specific goals in a competitive broadcasting environment and – in the process – to consult with the broad public and stakeholder groups (cultural, language, educational, advertising industry, etc).

Cobus Bester is right: we need a broadcasting Codesa.

My contention is that in our country a strong PBS broadcaster is indispensable.

- Wynand Harmse

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