SABC in crisis but still broadcasting

17 June 2009

Our public broadcaster is in crisis, nothing new there.  The SABC manages to confound and amaze, nothing new there either really.  It amazes because despite all the crises we really do need to give credit to those who ensure that it is still ticking over.

Yes, the SABC also amazes for its unfaltering ability to have the crises deepen just when we think it has hit rock bottom. But despite these and despite the confidence-shattering impact the crises are having on the morale of the people who work at the SABC, we still see programmes on our tv sets every day and night.  Sure some of them are old, others old repeats and poor excuses for programming, but the fact is they are still on. 

We must also acknowledge that many programmes aren’t on, like the Special Assignment programme on political satire (which due to the most ridiculous reasons) SABC banned from broadcast, and that there could be a great deal more quality programmes – just ask the Independent Producers Organisation.  But we do still have rare gems of local content programming including other Special Assignment programmes, Kids News, and 50/50.

The fact that SABC continues to operate despite the crises tells us something not only about the nature of institutions being bigger than any individual or set of individuals, but it has also given those who need to act to resolve the crises a cushion.

What is clear; however, is that just because the SABC is still broadcasting programmes, it does not mean to say the crises have not had a dramatic impact on the broadcasting and unless urgent action is taken it is only a matter of time until we have major broadcast blackouts.  The tell tale signs are there, watch the news on any of the channels and you will see some form of technical glitch. Technical glitches are part of any normal broadcast environment but used to be quite rare, now they are common place. 

An example, SABC 3 on the 15th of June after the credits had rolled instead of cutting to promo or advert or programming we cut to the SABC 1 newsreader preparing to go live for her 7:30pm news broadcast, she clearly was not aware she was on air and it took at least 15 seconds for them to rectify the error and cut to a promo for SABC 3 programming. 

In last night’s SABC 3 item on the SABC there was an instance of poor editing where the image jumped as they introduced an interview with the Minister of Communications, Minister Nyanda.  I have heard several other complaints from SABC staff about these issues, and while they are small they affect the quality, morale and work ethic.

In so far as the crises go, as usual we have to rely broadly on the media – other than the SABC to inform us of what is happening, ironic given that the central role of the SABC is to communicate with its public. 

Unlike much of the media coverage; however, it is vital to note that the crises are not just about the board and the SABC’s finances.  Indeed the current crisis surrounding the board really is just the tip of the iceberg.  All of the crises have been developing for years, they have structural and political causes and require well-thought out, well-planned and broadly consulted solutions.

What we are seeing is the failure (to varying degrees) of all those responsible for the SABC to carry out their mandated responsibilities.  The Department of Communication’s failure, among other things, to amend the Articles of Association (same issues the FXI has been raising. See http://www.fxi.org.za/content/view/201/1/).  ICASA’s apparent failure to monitor SABC’s compliance with its Charter.  Parliament’s Portfolio Committee for allowing political interference in the appointment of the board and there being no investigation into this interference, and then the committee’s failure to engage and interrogate the SABC over its Annual Reports - had it done so they could at least have prepared for the current financial crisis.

There is light at the end of the tunnel however, our new Minister of Communications, Siphiwe Nyanda has expressed a clear commitment to engaging with all the relevant stakeholders in finding a way forward and resolving the current SABC crises.  It is in all of our interests that we take him up on his offer to engage and reclaim our public broadcaster.