SABC follows in the footsteps of other public broadcasters worldwide


The SABC debacle is a clear, and hopefully the pinnacle, of an already experienced demise of public broadcasters worldwide.

The SABC debacle is a clear, and hopefully the pinnacle, of an already experienced demise of public broadcasters worldwide. Faced with political pressure, unsustainable funding models, and a hostile environment (to the public broadcast and journalists); the happenings in the SABC today clearly show ineptitude, lack of foresight and callous capitalist managerialism.

Following their appointment in 2019, the current board led by Bongumusa Makhathini, adopted a turnaround strategy that was underpinned by three key pillars. In parliament, the board chairperson, Mr Makhathini, told parliamentarians that; “…the SABC has put in place a commercial turnaround plan which focuses on rehabilitation and renewal. This entails ensuring financial sustainability by reducing operating costs and, attracting audiences and revenue. The main objective is to ensure financial sustainability and a SABC that is fit for purpose”.

The two other pillars were “dealing with legacy and governance issues, and addressing regulatory and policy constraints”. This board has so far failed to make at least a ninety-degree turn of the 360-degree turnaround that they have pledged themselves to make and save the public broadcaster.

The broadcaster’s financial woes worsened further during the 2018/19 financial year reporting at the end of March 2019 with a cash balance of only R72m. Its cash flow was depleted and it could not honor payments to service providers, adhere to its committed contracts, and commission local content productions. It ended FY2018/19 with an unaudited loss of loss for the year of R483m.

It must be mentioned that losses have decreased over the past number of years from R1 billion in 2016/17, to R622m in 2017/18, to an unaudited loss of R483m in FY2018/19. We must admit that the SABC’s financial position remains severe.

The SABC board chairperson told Members of Parliament (MPs) that the broadcaster was projecting a loss of R1.2 billion. He said that if the corporation did not implement its turnaround plan, which included restructuring, the company would be back in the ICU. “If we don’t fully implement the turnaround plan, we will get to the point where the SABC will be back in an ICU situation,” according to EWN (19 November 2020).

Today, at least four hundred (400) employees face a prospect of retrenchment placing the public broadcaster under pressure and threat of a total “blackout” by the not so happy employees. What is clear is that the board has only pinned their redemption in retrenchments without thinking out of the box. Also, the board has not cast their eyes wide to learn from other public broadcasters, such as in the United Kingdom, Japan, Europe, and the United States, to offer learnings.

As early as 2015, the light was on public broadcasters worldwide when the BBC, for an example, faced similar debates around an appropriate funding model. It was clear that public service broadcasters all over the world are coming under increasing pressure to justify their funding models. So became inevitable that these broadcasters would lose at least some of their public money, forcing them to adopt more commercial funding structures. I guess, our public representatives and/or board members were caught unawares.

During the same time, in Canada, a Senate committee published a report on public broadcaster CBC that was entitled Time for Change. The 22 reforms it recommended, critics argue, were a thinly disguised attempt to contract the range of services it offers.

In Australia, the government of Tony Abbott was “at war” with the ABC, if you believed the headlines. At the time, not only had ministers called for further cuts to the public service broadcaster, but the prime minister himself had directly criticized editorial decisions – demanding that “heads should roll”.

These are the types of pressures faced by public broasdcatsres and they were already playing out at the SABC during the reign of the likes of Tlaudi Motsoeneng. Around these periods (around 2015), the Sunday Times newspaper revealed that “the public broadcaster faced losses of about R500m – which Motsoeneng concealed from parliament – in stark contrast to the profit of R641m last year. This meant that with Motsoeneng at the helm, the SABC suffered a loss of R1.1bn in a year”, they argued.

We all know that public broadcasting is arguably the single most important social, cultural, and journalistic institution of the 20th century. In the past 37 years, it has been assaulted politically, ideologically, and technologically. Today it is in retreat everywhere.

Michael Tracey, Professor and Director Centre for Mass Media Research, also argues that public service broadcasting has been a vital and democratically significant institution in the past, but it is now experiencing a terminal decline brought about by great changes in political, economic, and technological circumstances (1998).

It must have been clear to the shareholder and the boards that the fundamental contradiction that had befallen the public broadcaster like the SABC is that in a public system, it acquires money in order to make programmes. In a commercial system, private competitors make programmes to acquire money.

Yet simple, this little epigram articulates the divergence of basic principles, the different philosophical assumptions, on which broadcasting is built. It also explains the conundrum of National Treasury when it has to decide on whether to bail the SABC out or not.

History and experience fashioned inside public broadcasting a definable canon, a set of principles and practices which came to constitute its purpose. They form the core theses around which the institution must be maintained and shaped, which must guide its performance, and which powerfully suggest its potential worth.

While we may still believe that independent and well-funded public media play an instrumental role in supporting and maintaining effective democracies, with media freedom in decline worldwide, the impact on the ability of public service media to fulfill their mandate has also declined. Placing exactly where we at today in South Africa.

The considerable decline in media freedom matches trends that we have witnessed over the past years. As with the decline in media freedom, the pressure and challenges facing public media are not localized, but shared worldwide, according to the Public Media Alliance (2018).

These challenges include political pressure on journalists to self-censor and populist campaigns against public funding mechanisms. It also includes the systematic harassment and, in some cases, the firing of journalists (remember the SABC eight?) based on the whims of political elites. This in itself defies one of the ideal tenets of public media – independence and accountability to the public.

Despite the myriad of challenges faced by the SABC, the current crisis could have been pre-empted, avoided and managed far better than it is now. What is clear and obvious is that in these troubled times government and an inept board has introduced policies which at a minimum make life difficult for the public broadcaster.

Equally worrying is the fact that the public broadcaster is currently acting as a gravedigger to its funeral by acknowledging in almost welcoming terms that operating the SABC in the same old style has a corrosive influence.

A conclusion that can be drawn: it’s time to reinvest in public broadcaster. It is a creaky vessel, battered by decades of cutbacks, capture, and challenges, but it is still one of our best tools for protecting democracy and building a healthy society.

There’s a path forward for our public broadcaster. Government needs to ensure that the SABC has sufficient public funding and autonomy to do its work. And the public broadcaster needs to figure out how to translate its traditional public service values into a media landscape that’s radically changed.

It’s not that complicated. It’s entirely possible to do. And it’s necessary, now more than ever.

By Chris Maxon