Interference in SABC retrenchments was ‘improper’ — board chair

Efforts to stop the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) retrenchment plans amounted to state capture-era political interference, the commission of inquiry into allegations of state capture heard on Monday.

During his appearance before commission, chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, SABC board chairperson Bongumusa Makhathini compared the frustrating of the SABC’s retrenchment plans to prior efforts to undermine the independence of the embattled public broadcaster.

“What resulted in the work of this commission doing the work that it is doing is still a reality for us. We are still living under those circumstances where you worry about your safety for just trying to do what is right,” Makhathini said.

“And what is the most frustrating things, at times, they will cover some of these things as ‘transformation’.
They will label you as somebody who is against transformation, when they’re hiding corruption under transformation.
Or they will label you as someone who is ‘gender insensitive’, just because they want to cover certain things, using gender and transformation.”

Makhathini recounted the political pushback experienced by the SABC board after it announced its plans to retrench more than 2 000 permanent workers and freelancers.

Towards the end of 2018, in a major cost-cutting effort, the public broadcaster announced it would be retrenching 981 permanent staffers and 1 200 freelancers. The proposed retrenchments were part of the SABC’s turnaround strategy after the broadcaster reported losses exceeding R1.5-billion for the past two years.

But in January, the proposed retrenchments were scrapped. Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams became a central figure in the impasse between the SABC and government that culminated in the resignation of four of its board members.

Makhathini said efforts by politicians to stop the SABC from implementing its turnaround strategy, which included the retrenchments, was “improper”.

“It’s okay to give inputs and alternatives, but you can’t just stop something without giving alternatives,” he said.

Makhathini was responding to questions by Zondo about supposed political interference at the SABC.

“The question that may arise relating to what you have told me is whether we may have a situation where at SABC, SABC had found a board that wanted to do the right thing and look after the interests of the SABC. And may have done a lot of work in good faith to try and make sure they make a difference in an institution that was going down,” Zondo said.

“But when they put on the table solutions that politicians may not have liked —maybe because there were elections coming — those politicians stopped them.”

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