MAHLATSE MAHLASE: If we can help SAA, we must help the SABC
On Tuesday night, the nation watched heart-wrenching pleas by SABC journalists begging to do their jobs in service to the nation.
The impassioned appeals by senior reporter Chriselda Lewis and others brought home the realities of the consequences of mismanagement, political interference and empty promises by grand-standing politicians.
The workers are always the sacrificial lambs.
It is hard to believe that just 15 years ago the SABC - with a massive mandate to help stitch together our broken past - was a successful, commercially viable entity.
In the years of then CEO Peter Matlare, the organisation that I worked at for more than 15 years was thriving, earning the title of employer of choice. It was under his reign that employees enjoyed a 14th cheque - so you got another month’s salary over and above your guaranteed bonus that we dubbed the 13th cheque.
But today, the SABC executive says the organisation is fighting for its survival and it needs to reduce its salary bill, which is more than half its revenue and 45% of its expenditure. It also says it will need to retrench about 400 of its 3,000 employees and put in place a three-year freeze on salary increases.
Matlare was pushed out by politics as the ANC was looking for a mouthpiece to be at the helm of the public broadcaster. Since then, the organisation has been in free fall. It has had numerous chief executive officers who have never completed their terms, while board after board collapsed.
The reality is that while there are journalists like Lewis who throw their whole beings into telling the complicated story of this country, there are many other staff members who get away with doing very little and some with getting absolutely nothing done, not only in the newsroom but across the institution.
For years there was no consequence management at the public broadcaster. Instead of facing a disciplinary process for not doing your work, it was easier to bring in a freelancer to complete the task.
During my term as a middle manager, it was so difficult to discipline someone. You could have someone run up a company cellphone bill of over R200,000 over a couple of months, with no justifiable explanation of the high cost, especially if you compared the cost to the work delivered. But there were no repercussions. There was a time when I left to work for another institution, but spent almost two years asking the SABC to stop paying my cellphone bill.
The system is also overburdened with senior managers, often with no people reporting to them.
With every chief executive officer brought in, there was an attempt at introducing a performance management system to try and reward those who worked hard. But all efforts came to naught as unions and non-unionised employees blocked the process.
Instead, an across the board, above inflation salary increase was always guaranteed. When Hlaudi Motsoeneng was chief executive officer, he generously gave us a 10% increase - despite the company facing financial woes. He did not hide the fact that he was buying staff’s support.
The reality of the time we live in is that the SABC needs a complete overhaul because media houses are in trouble as advertising revenue dwindles. But in doing so, it cannot sacrifice its public mandate. Instead of politicians grand standing, there should be a decision on how to fund that mandate.
As a news person, it has been painful to watch current affairs shows being sacrificed for programming in the desperate hope to attract revenue. SAfm, for example, has reduced its current affairs output from six hours every day to a mere two hours. This has been done to some extent on African language stations too.
I don’t know if the money has followed the new programming format, but what we have lost is hours of holding those in authority to account and space for the voices of ordinary South Africans.
Apart from news, SABC has lost audience share to DStv as it competes directly with the SABC and produces more local content. In any unstable organisation with no certainty, creativity is stifled and innovation suffers, never mind not having the money to pay for fresh content and go head-to-head with your competitors.
Instead of politicians expressing “solidarity” with the workers, they should be coming up with a plan to fund the public mandate of our beloved public broadcaster.
With every elective conference, the ANC resolved to increase funding for the SABC. But those were just words on paper. They have instead left the SABC to fend for its survival while it remains complicit in the entity's instability.
We are managing to assist an airline but are ignoring an institution central to our democracy. The tears of our colleagues at the SABC should not be in vain - it should be a seminal moment to do right by an institution and workers who are central to building our nation.
Mahlatse Mahlase is group editor-in-chief at Eyewitness News. Follow her on Twitter: @hlatseentle