News / South Africa / State Capture

Makhosandile Zulu
4 minute read
2 Sep 2019
4:32 pm

Parliament’s interference at SABC was improper, witness tells Zondo

Makhosandile Zulu

The witness says the independence of the SABC should be protected.

Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Interference by the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications which led to planned retrenchments at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) was improper, the chairperson of the commission of inquiry into state capture, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, heard on Monday.

The SABC announced in July that it would not go ahead with retrenchments at the corporation and had decided to abort the process of section 189 of the Labour Relations Act (LRA), and would not renew the notice to invoke section 189 following constructive and extensive engagements with various stakeholders, including the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications, organised labour, and SABC employees.

The chairperson of the SABC board, Bongumusa Makhathini, took the witness stand at the commission on Monday.

Makhathini and evidence leader at the commission, Advocate Thandi Norman, looked at the remedial action in the public protector’s 2014 report on the SABC and the final report of the ad hoc committee on the broadcaster.

Makhithini said when the current board was appointed its priority was to decisively implement the public protector’s remedial action and the ad hoc committee’s recommendations.

One of the public protector’s remedial actions was to deal with political interference at the SABC. The report also found that the allegation the department and the minister of communication at the time had interfered at the cooperation, was true.

Makhathini said further investigations have uncovered wrongdoing at the SABC.

Furthermore, between 80% and 90% of the public protector’s remedial action has been implemented, Makhathini said, with the main challenge for the board being to recover monies through litigation.

The recommendations in the final report of the ad hoc committee have almost all been implemented, he added.

Norman and Makhathini further looked at the resignation of four board members in December 2018, which rendered the board “inquorate”.

The reasons cited by the four board members – which include personal reasons, a lack of understanding or appreciation of the board’s independence, political interference, a lack of financial support from government and dissatisfaction with the committee’s oversight – were considered by the commission.

Makhathini said it is the board that is responsible for running the affairs at the SABC and the minister does not have the right to interfere with operations, and that the board cannot take directives from the minister.

Makhathini said the current board introduced in parliament a turn-around strategy which included retrenchments as a cost-cutting measure, however, political parties were not happy with the plan because elections were looming and unemployment in the country was very high.

He added that no alternatives to the planned retrenchments being halted were tabled by the committee.

The SABC spends 45% of its budget on salaries, “which is out of the norm”, Makhathini said.

The resignation of the four board members was “devastating” and “harmful” to the board, which led to it not functioning, Makhathini said.

He said new Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni Abrahams had stopped the plan to retrench and had given the reason that she wanted to familiarise herself with the portfolio and issues around the plan to cut jobs.

Makhathini said it has almost been 23 months without the government providing funding for the SABC.

Zondo asked Makhathini how the board was expected to operate without funding. Makhathini said it is difficult and “it becomes impossible and really demoralizing for us as the board and the executive”.

Zondo said Makhathini’s testimony on the SABC board was interesting because based on previous evidence at the commission on state-owned entities (SOEs), there is a common view that certain board members had not performed their duties and may have acted corruptly, and that some may have been captured and were advancing agendas other than the agenda of the SOE.

Furthermore, evidence on SOEs suggests that executives and board members who want to do the right thing at these entities are victimised, suspended and all efforts are made to drive them out and replace them with those who would toe the line, Zondo said.

Zondo questioned whether the committee’s or politicians’ interference had been “improper” or “legitimate intervention”.

The commission’s chair further noted that politicians in the country take decisions based on political reasons and for expedience.

In response, Makhathini said board members end up fearing for their safety for wanting to do the right thing. He added these board members are sometimes labelled as being against transformation and insensitive to gender issues – labels which are used as a cover-up of the interference.

“That interference was improper,” Makhathini said.

He also gave evidence on the SABC’s financial woes, saying the turn-around strategy is why the cooperation has stayed afloat, among other reasons.

Makhathini said the 11 conditions stipulated by Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni for the SABC to get a R3.2 million government bailout have been substantially met, but no monies have been forthcoming.

Thanks to the turn-around strategy, which he said needs a cash injection, the SABC has reduced its losses, with the corporation registering a R483 million unaudited loss in the 2018/2019 financial year, an improvement of 33%, which is significant.

Makhathini said competent, experienced executives with high levels of integrity are important in restoring the SABC.

He said the independence of the SABC should be protected.

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