Politics plague S. African SABC

Auditors probe debt-ridden web

JOHANNESBURG — The post-apartheid South African Broadcasting Corp. carried the dreams of then-President Nelson Mandela’s new democracy at its relaunch in 1996. Its mission — to transform from a propaganda machine into a truly independent pubcaster.

As SABC’s first black CEO Zwelakhe Sisulu pledged in 1994, “We will have a public broadcaster second to none in the world that will make us all proud to be South Africans again.”

Thirteen years later this dream is in tatters.

Last week forensic auditors moved into SABC headquarters at Auckland Park in Johannesburg to examine allegations of corruption and mismanagement against senior executives at the web, which is more than $100 million in debt.

It owes independent producers at least $10 million and striking workers are demanding that previously agreed wage increases be honored.

So desperate is the situation that in June, SABC acting CEO Gabs Mampone said the pubcaster was hemorrhaging money and appealed to the government for a $250 million “survival bailout.”

The SABC never gained the respect for independence it aspired to.

Its roots lie in radio broadcasting, which began in South Africa in 1923. The SABC was established in 1936 replacing the state-controlled African Broadcasting Corp., formed in 1927.

It was a monopoly for many years controlled by the white minority National Party government, which refused to allow it to introduce TV until January 1976 for fear of the incendiary effect it would have on the racially segregated country.

Two years after Mandela came to power in 1994, the SABC was restructured to better serve and reflect the new democratic society of South Africa, with programming in the country’s 11 official languages offered on its four TV channels and 18 radio stations.

The change ended its role as the mouthpiece of the apartheid regime.

Now it is plagued by allegations of interference from the ruling African National Congress party amid power struggles between senior staff, which led to the dismissal of former CEO Dali Mpofu in January.

In an indication of just how bad it got, former SABC board chair Kanyisiwe Mkonza told a parliamentary hearing last month, “I suck as a leader, but due to the political climate this board never had a chance.”

Mkonza’s board was embroiled in controversy from the moment it was appointed in December 2007 with many claiming that then President Thabo Mbeki had forced his appointees onto the body.

This dysfunctional “Mbeki board” was fired last month by new president Jacob Zuma’s parliament.

An interim board under businesswomen Irene Charnley has been appointed which, along with new Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda, is trying to clean up SABC’s act.

Ironically, one of the SABC’s biggest debtors is the government itself with national and provincial government departments owing it more than $40 million in advertising fees.

Charnley disclosed this when she addressed parliament’s communications committee last week.

She said the arrears appeared to be due to administrative and bureaucratic issues rather than an unwillingness to pay and efforts were being made to collect the money.

Nyanda has appointed 12 industry and labor experts to investigate the problems at the pubcaster. They will review the SABC’s business plan and look at new funding models, with a final report to be presented to the minister in October.

Most of its revenue comes from advertising with around 20% from license fees paid by homes with TVs, which are 225 rand ($28.70) per annum.

Nyanda says the team would advise on “strategies to ensure that the public broadcaster in future achieves its constitutional mandate of providing quality and reliable public broadcasting services.”

Pramesh Bhana, of the Attorney-General’s Office, says state auditors would work with a private audit firm and a preliminary report will available by the end of the month.