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Letter to Mahlamba Ndlopfu – Bhekisisa Mncube

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Letter to Mahlamba Ndlopfu – Bhekisisa Mncube

20th November 2020

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MR President, let's separate the wheat from the chaff on the SABC's ongoing on-and-off retrenchment saga. I haven't interacted with the SABC platforms for over ten years, yet I remain convinced that it is a vital institution that cannot be allowed to go the way of the dodo.

For any country that is serious about keeping democratic momentum going, a properly funded public broadcaster such as the SABC is a prerequisite. The SABC plays a vital role in our broadcasting, media ecosystem. It offers a plurality of voices which is vital in a developing democracy. It plays a constitutional role in disseminating news and information to all South Africans in their own language, at no cost to them. The SABC entertains and informs a wide variety of audiences that are the envy of the pay-per-view channels. It has a national footprint, which reaches Gogo MaMlambo Mncube in a village of Ulundi and the proverbial well-heeled Karen from the leafy suburb of Hilton.

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By law, the SABC has to broadcast in 11 languages (it does 13 on the radio), run a minimum number of hours of bulletins and current affairs programmes on radio and TV, and run a quota of educational and children's programming. Yet, the government contributes just 2% of its funding. Hence the need to rethink the SABC’s funding model.

Furthermore, in line with the Broadcasting Act, the SABC must reflect South African attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity. It must also display South African talent in education and entertainment programmes. Many television production companies and the music industry rely heavily on the SABC and its platforms for both survival (income) and cultural reproduction (social cohesion). The news, drama, soap operas, sports and arts are  backbones in the development of South African expression. The SABC excels in most of these areas, except on the news front, which remains contested terrain between a trained SABC journalists' cohort and the Luthuli House/Union Buildings propagandists.  

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Mr President, it is true that the SABC is overstaffed, underfunded and poorly managed.

One radio producer told me in 2018 that during the reign of uBaba, 'we all got jobs here; uBaba looked after us as people from KwaZulu-Natal'. We know that over the proverbial 'nine lost years' during uBaba's reign of error, workers at the SABC got salary increases way beyond their output and beyond inflation. None of them protested and rejected the 14th cheques that were dished by uBaba's protégé one Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Motsoeneng dished out salary increases, bonuses and promotions like a matron would dishing out condoms at a whore house. The workers enjoyed the unearned riches and stayed mum. It's payback time. One must also be fair, Mr President. Some of the more structural problems at the SABC predate uBaba and his henchman's reign of terror. But the overstaffing, grand theft and rigged tenders are the mainstay of the 'nine lost years'. Today the organisation is sitting with people who hold positions that far exceed their education, experience and competence.  

Nonetheless, Mr President, we need to save the 'ideal' SABC, one of the likes of Zwelakhe Sisulu and Peter Matlare and later the 'SABC 8'. Thus the old must be allowed to die. My 'ideal' SABC would dismantle the 'employment racket' of the Hlaudi years. All employees in unearned positions must be sent into the streets. Mr President, my 'ideal' SABC would be funded wholly by the public purse. The idea of funding a public broadcaster through television licence fees is a relic from the past, even before Netflix and Facebook were an issue. In any event, a few years back the licence fees contributed about 11% and advertisers paid the lion's share, according to former board member Pippa Green.

Mr President, we need a robust public broadcaster not for the benefit of the minnows at Luthuli House/Union Buildings but for the sake of our nascent democracy. Without an 'ideal' publicly funded SABC, the project of social cohesion will forever remain in the doldrums. The SABC is the flag carrier of our diverse cultures, languages and expressions. Public broadcasting, if it is to play its role in nation-building and cementing social cohesion, can't be left to the whims of the market. Put differently, if an 'ideal' SABC emerges from the ruins of the 'nine lost years', it may, in fact, play a crucial role in birthing our own version of a dream South Africa, a country at peace with itself, and united in its diversity.

Written by Bhekisisa Mncube, a former senior Witness political journalist, the 2020 winner of the Vodacom Journalist of the Year award, as well as author of The Love Diary of a Zulu Boy.

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