How the bloated SABC can save itself from disaster

The SABC’s plan to cut 400 jobs was recently suspended until the end of 2020, following strike action and a widely-publicised video of an in-office altercation between employees and management.

The SABC faces financial disaster if it is unable to cut costs, and its board has concluded that the only way to avert this crisis is to retrench staff.

Reports around retrenchments at the broadcaster first surfaced in June, and were later confirmed as part of its turnaround strategy to become a “financially sustainable, self-sufficient, and fit-for-purpose public broadcaster”.

Earlier in November, the SABC announced it had exhausted all other options after engaging with workers’ unions in a CCMA-facilitated process and would have to proceed to retrench 400 employees.

However, these plans were suspended until 2021 after severe backlash from unions including CWU, which went so far as to threaten a total blackout of broadcasting.

This latest instance follows a previous attempt in 2018 at retrenching 981 permanent employees and 1,200 freelancers in an effort to save costs.

In 2019, the issue made headlines again when the SABC planned to close five offices, cut a third of its staff, and reduce management by 37% to turn the ailing company around.

These planned jobs cuts never materialised, with the SABC instead relying on a R3.2-billion bailout to continue operating.

Despite the government stating that it must find another way to restore its finances, the SABC has reiterated the latest retrenchments are essential.

We asked three media analysts for their perspectives on the SABC’s financial situation and retrenchments.

A bloated workforce

Analyst and journalist Thinus Ferreira said the planned cuts are absolutely essential.

“The bloated broadcaster simply cannot sustain the total number of workers, the duplication of positions, and the current number of staff and the salaries they are employed at,” Ferreira said.

He added the fact that the retrenchments had been suspended due to political and trade union pressure was bad news.

“Delaying the inevitable just makes it worse,” Ferreira noted.

Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird explained the SABC’s wage bill accounted for a significant portion of its expenses.

“If you look at the figures that show 43% of costs are staffing and compare this to other broadcasters, then it would appear that their costs are too high,” he said.

He claimed that “much of the fat at the SABC” is due to decades of irregular appointments and “jobs for pals”.

Independent media analyst Nozi Dikgale noted the SABC had over 1,800 more employees than eMedia – which runs Openview, eNCA, and Etv.

Lazy restructuring

However, Ferreira expressed concerns over the proposed workforce restructuring that formed part of the SABC’s turnaround.

“It has become clear that whoever the management is just thought of coming up with some Googled cookie-cutter ‘one size fits all’ organogram,” Ferreira said.

“Suddenly at SABC Radio, the broadcaster wants to cut hordes of staff at every radio station while each of them, broadcasting in a different language, have a different way of working and face different challenges.”

“You can’t just randomly push them all into the same form,” Ferreira added.

According to him, another bad decision was to fire all of its publicists, while more publicity around its TV content would be needed to compete against Netflix, YouTube, and DStv.

He called on the SABC to think and reorganise staff in a “smart way”.

“Stop the laziness, go to each floor, each unit, investigate who works there, what their jobs are, and then decide,” he said.

Practical solutions

Dikgale said the SABC cannot hope to solve its plethora of problems with retrenchments alone but must look at several other areas within its operations.

“This includes improved usage of technology and a review of skills sets in the SABC, as well as the reduction or consolidation of debt, Dikgale said.

According to Ferreira, there are a number of immediate measures the SABC could take in order to address the years of shameful waste and neglect:

  • Place an absolute ban on catering services – potentially saving around R6 million.
  • Stop the use of external PR services.
  • Sell its prime property behind the Sea Point building in Cape Town.
  • Sell or lease the R400-million worth SABC Art Collection to save on maintenance.

He also proposed that the loss-making SABC 3 be turned into a “SuperSport Lite”.

“Fill it with as much and as best sport as possible, compile the schedule long in advance, tell the SABC’s ad executives they get commission on the ad sales and let them fly to make as much money as possible,” Ferreira advised.

Direct anger at the government

Bird urged people not to blame the broadcaster’s board for the retrenchments.

“The majority of the challenges they have are directly due to hangovers of decades of wastage, poor or no governance,” he added.

“Fixing these institutions is going to take years, and every time we seek to undermine the legitimacy of those who are correctly, fairly, and duly appointed by Parliament to do their job we in fact seek to prevent the work of undoing state capture,” Bird said.

He noted that these issues were prevalent at other state-owned institutions as well.

“Look at the NPA, ESKOM, Denel, and SAA, and see how those institutions have been hollowed out to allow for the institution to operate in chaos, to facilitate grand scale corruption,” Bird said.

“If people want to be angry they should be looking at the government and the ANC, which actively facilitated the deliberate undermining of good governance and efficiency at the SABC – and other places,” he said.

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How the bloated SABC can save itself from disaster