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Vavi Open Letter To SABC

Open letter dated 24 June 2014 from Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi to SABC Board Chairperson:

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Dear Comrade Tshabalala

The Congress of South African Trade Unions wishes to raise some important issues with the SABC Board of Directors, and we would welcome an opportunity to meet the Board to discuss them.

The SABC is by far the most important media structure in South Africa, with 4 TV and 18 radio stations. Its reach and coverage surpasses any other media institution and it should plays a central role in our democracy by keeping people well informed and giving them a voice.
This role is enshrined in both the Broadcasting Act and the SABC Charter, which summarises its mandate to “encourage the development of South African expression by providing, in South African official languages, a wide range of programming that:
(a) reflects South African attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity;
(b) displays South African talent in education and entertainment programmes;
(c) offers a plurality of views and a variety of news, information and analysis from a South African point of view;
(d) advances the national and public interest.”

This vision was also well expressed by the ANC’s 2012 Policy Document on Communications: “The SABC should act as a means to reflect the rich South African cultural heritage, provides voice to South Africans to participate in a democratic dispensation as well as acting as an important platform for community involvement, education and entertainment”.

It should also focus on developing previously marginalised languages and our understanding of the lives of people in South Africa, Southern Africa, Africa and the world, empower us to play our role as active global citizens, deepen its accountability to its audiences and to the community, and be free of all direct party political, factional or commercial interests.

COSATU however believes that the SABC is still far from fulfilling this mandate. The underlying reason is that the SABC has been, and still is, plagued by seemingly intractable governance crises and financial problems at the level of the Board and management.

Governance

Since 2007 the SABC has had three Boards of Directors, two interim boards, six CEOs, resignations by board members, serious allegations of corruption and waste of resources.

The latest crisis hit the SABC in February 2014, with the resignation of its group CEO, Lulama Mokhobo, just two years into her five-year term. She was reported to be going because her situation has become untenable, as two centres of power have emerged, one in her own office and the other in the office of acting group chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

These leadership battles and the absence of any consistent leadership at the top filter down into the staff, whose often excellent work keeps being undermined by a lack of clear lines of command, combined with uncertainty about the future. All this ultimately impacts on the quality of programming.

COSATU backs the demand, by the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and Broadcast, Electronic Media and Allied Workers Union (BEMAWU), that the Minister of Communications urgently order a proper investigation and decisive action into allegations made by the Public Protector in her report titled “When governance and ethics fail” which has implicated members of the board, executives of the SABC and senior management in, inter alia, maladministration and abuse of power.

The federation agrees with these unions that action must be taken against individuals who, according to the Public Protector, admitted to wrongdoing, and that all appointments that were made without advertising the positions be reversed and disciplinary action be taken against individuals responsible.

COSATU also agrees with the two unions’ demand for a full and proper investigation of the allegations by PriceWaterhouseCoopers in skills audit on SABC top and executive management. It found that, with the exception of a few, the executive of the SABC was found to be seriously lacking, in particular in respect of strategic skills which at their level are vital for any organisation to exist.

Finance

The second, even more fundamental, underlying problem is the SABC’s financial situation. Almost 80% of its funding comes from advertising, which has forced the SABC, especially its TV stations, to base its programming overwhelmingly on commercial criteria – the potential revenue from advertisers and sponsors.

So although the corporation is a public institution answerable to Parliament, it is forced to operate as if it is a commercial entity. This has forced the SABC, especially its TV stations, to base its programming overwhelmingly on the potential revenue from advertising and sponsorship.

This problem is becoming even more serious following the deal, reportedly worth R500 million, with the private broadcaster Multichoice, which has enabled SABC to broadcast its 24-hour news channel on DSTV. This appears to be in contravention of the SABC’s public service mandate and a partial privatisation of the public broadcaster, as the contract also gives Multichoice rights to share exclusive SABC archived footage of events of national importance.

On top of this problematic funding model, the situation has been made even worse by poor financial management, and constant allegations of corruption at both staff, management and even board levels, and outrageous waste of resources.

The Auditor-General, Terence Nombembe, gave the worst possible audit opinion – a disclaimer – because he “could not obtain sufficient [and] appropriate audit evidence”.

And in 2009 the government granted the SABC a R1.4-billion loan guarantee, on condition that they improve financial controls, but exactly the opposite has happened. In her annual report to Parliament outgoing SABC CEO, Lulama Mokhobo, admitted that it failed to meet performance targets attached to the loan guarantee and that the corporation was more than R600-million below its revenue targets.

COSATU welcomed the statement by the former Communications Minister, Yunus Carrim, that he had established a task team to strengthen financial controls at the SABC and that his department will also exercise far more strategic oversight over it, and we hope that his successor will follow this through.

Parliament and ICASA have however largely failed to rigorously perform their oversight roles, for example on local content quotas, allowing the public broadcaster to sink deeper into crisis.

Editorial policy

All these problems have undermined the SABC’s ability to deliver on its mandate on editorial policy. COSATU believes that if it is to meet its obligations under its Charter and the Broadcasting Act, it must urgently resolve these governance and financial problems.

One area which on which COSATU feels particularly strongly is the huge disparity between the SABC’s wide and detailed coverage of business news and issues compared to its miniscule coverage of labour issues – wages, working conditions, occupational health and safety, racism and sexism in the workplace, education and training of workers – all of which affect millions of SABC’s viewers and listeners.

Our sole victory has been the Workers on Wednesday slot on Radio SAFM, which is very good but lasts for just half an hour a week on just one channel. There is no dedicated labour coverage at all on any of the TV stations.

Business on the other hand is covered extensively throughout every day on TV and radio channels, a policy which is clearly dictated by the much greater commercial sponsorship and advertising revenue for business shows.

To some extent this situation has been tackled with the launch of the new SABC News Channel, which gives more and better coverage than previously of news, current affairs, discussions, investigative reporting and documentaries, and it has broadcast more interviews with union representatives than previously.

The negative side however is that because it is only available on the DSTV pay channel only a small fraction of the SABC’s viewers – the wealthiest ones – ever get to see it.

What makes it worse is that the News Channel appears to be monopolising the SABC’s news and current affairs coverage; the three terrestrial channels now broadcast even fewer such programmes, which leads to a ‘dumbing down’ of the content on offer to the majority of viewers.

The real danger is that a class divide is opening up – as in other areas of social life – with a two-tier structure, providing a good quality service for a small rich elite who subscribe to DSTV and poor service for the majority.

The problem of over-dependence on external funding is particularly serious with the TV Channels. Radio, which has been less dependent on advertising, has performed better than TV in complying with the vision outlined above, especially the use of all the national languages and interacting with the listeners in talk shows.

The TV stations, however, with their over-reliance on advertising have seriously failed to adhere to the vision, reflected in their poor coverage of labour issues, local communities, African languages, minority sports, local drama, documentaries and the diversity of our cultural, linguistic, political, religious, sporting and social heritage.

CWU and BEMAWU comment that “The SABC is in a sorry state, with repeats being broadcast, even on news, and millions of rands are pushed into new projects like the 24 hour news channel broadcast on a not free to air channel and only accessible to the few privileged who can afford DSTV subscription”.

While the SABC ought to be the voice of the South African people, its over-dependence on advertising revenue and sponsorship has led broadcasting far too many cheap, imported sit-coms and soap operas, rather than encouraging local talent and production companies, and failed to reflect the interests and concerns of the majority of its viewers.

The federation fully supports the call by the Creative Workers Union of SA (CWUSA) – in line with the SABC’s mandate to “reflect South African attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity” – for an increase in locally produced programmes, which will also create many new jobs.

As the ANC Policy Document says: “Compared to other countries such as Canada, Australia and Nigeria. South Africa has one of the lowest content obligations in the world. Many countries continue to impose foreign content and ownership limitations of the media. In its approach to this matter, the ANC maintains that the broadcasting policy review must prioritise national social and economic goals above private interests.

“In addition, the broadcasting policy must also provide a strategy to fast-track the local content development industry. The review of local content quotas must be aligned to this strategy.”

We also condemn the closure of the SABC’s Channel Africa, which has left its coverage of international issues severely depleted, and is therefore promoting a more parochial view of the world.

Government urgently needs to implement ANC policy on the SABC, as set out by its Mangaung Conference resolution, which said: “The government must, in line with the resolutions of the 52nd conference, increase its funding of the SABC. This must be implemented progressively over a reasonable period.”

Government funding however cannot be an unconditional blank cheque, but ring-fenced and targeted towards public programmes on education, health, poverty eradication, rural development, crime prevention and other societal priorities, which are miniscule compared to entertainment-based programming.

COSATU expects the SABC and government to adopt this approach. Our demand for far more and much better coverage of labour issues, relative to business issues, will be an acid test of the broadcaster’s willingness to take these demands seriously.

Yours comradely

Zwelinzima Vavi
General Secretary

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Issued by Cosatu

Read at Cosatu Today

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Louis Groenewald

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