Tensions flare at public broadcaster as new communications head turns up the heat to put a stop to all retrenchments.
New Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams is at war with the SABC board and has threatened to report it to President Cyril Ramaphosa and Parliament.
Just two weeks into her new job, Ndabeni-Abrahams is battling the board over the retrenchments of 981 permanent staff and 1 200 freelancers at the public broadcaster, and charges that board members refused to allow her to first negotiate a bailout with Finance Minister Tito Mboweni before going ahead with the job cuts.
The board received a blistering letter from the minister on Saturday morning, following a tense meeting at the SABC on Thursday where insiders say the minister demanded an end to the retrenchments.
A board source who attended the meeting told City Press: “The board has made it very clear that the financial crisis it inherited means that come February, March, there will be no money to pay anybody’s salaries.”
In the letter, Ndabeni-Abrahams mentions a R3 billion government guarantee that the SABC applied for, and a R1.2 billion loan facility from Treasury.
Another source who attended the meeting confirmed that Ndabeni-Abrahams, her deputy Pinky Kekana, the communications ministry’s acting director-general, Mashilo Boloka, and “several advisers” arrived at the SABC and “met with the unions and staff before even meeting the board”.
“Management was not allowed to be at the meeting with staff. She told them that she was there to solve their problems,” the source said.
“By the time the minister and her delegation met with the board and the executive, it was very clear she had come only to stop the retrenchments.
“She was threatening and very aggressive, as was her deputy. It felt clear she was preparing for a constructive dismissal of the board.”
THE MINISTER’S LETTER
In the letter dated Friday, Ndabeni-Abrahams said she had been forced to cut ties with the board after a meeting on Thursday, and would “report this impasse to the president, Parliament and all relevant stakeholders”.
“The board made it clear at the meeting that, irrespective of the success of [a] government guarantee or bailout, they will still proceed with retrenchments. As the shareholder representative, we were left with no option but to desist from all engagements with the SABC board,” she wrote.
“We realised that the board was no longer acting in the interests of the company, the shareholder, and Parliament as the representative of [the] South African public to which the SABC board is accountable.”
Ndabeni-Abrahams also accuses the board of being resolved to retrench workers, regardless of whether she is able to secure a bailout from Treasury.
But a board source told City Press that “in the last 14 months, there has been absolutely no cooperation from the department of communications with regard to Treasury”.
In her letter, Ndabeni-Abrahams said she “pleaded” with the board to suspend the retrenchment notice, “to allow us an opportunity to familiarise [sic] with the turnaround strategy, the bailout application, and furthermore, in consideration of the impending meeting between myself and the minister of finance to discuss the SABC’s financial position. The board flatly declined this request.”
Yet the letter also quotes the board saying it will “review the pace and quantum of the impact of the [retrenchments] should funding be found”.
However, insiders say this is part of a strategy, ahead of next year’s general election, to collapse the board so a new one can be appointed and more ANC choices brought on to it.
The current board is widely regarded as impartial and independent – and the more so it becomes, the more it causes disquiet for the governing party, for whom the SABC is an important election strategy component.
The board source said Ndabeni-Abrahams was “trying to set up the view that the SABC is being run by an irresponsible board”.
“The fact that she walked in and gave the board a directive is unlawful. She is trying to set the SABC board up to be dissolved and she is using the retrenchments to do it. It is political, it is about asserting control and, of course, it is also because of the elections,” he said.
“The board has also shared with the minister a legal opinion that, as members, we are personally liable for trading in an insolvent business. She is trying to get us all to fall on our swords, but what are we guilty of?
“There has been no alleged misconduct. If the board goes, it is highly likely that a lot of the newly appointed executives will walk.”
On Saturday, rumours circulated that the SABC’s deputy board chair, Khanyisile Kweyama, and board member Krish Naidoo were resigning.
Naidoo denied this, but said there were “some misunderstandings” between SABC board members and that some believed the board was independent, while others did not.
“We are accountable to the minister, Parliament and Scopa (the standing committee on public accounts). We cannot have a board that is totally independent from government,” Naidoo said.
He defended Ndabeni-Abrahams, saying she was exercising her oversight role: “She is entitled to meet with the board and get reports. That is not interference.”
Kweyama was unavailable for comment.
Parliamentary sources told City Press they believed the ANC instructed its members on the board to resign.
“They want to make the board inquorate,” said one.
“[The minister] does not seem to understand that the failure of the board will mean the failure of the SABC.
“We are proud of the work that the board has done in filling positions, enabling the Special Investigating Unit to do its work and developing a turnaround strategy.”
A board source said they had “received no help whatsoever from any of the three ministers who have been in the position [Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, Nomvula Mokonyane and Ndabeni-Abrahams] since we started as a board”.
“Now we are being hung out to dry when the truth is that the retrenchments are the only way to cut costs. If they can show us the money, then the board will reconsider.
“In 14 months there has been no minister to bat for us, so what evidence do we have that she will get us the money to keep the broadcaster afloat?”
In a statement to City Press, the board confirmed the meeting with Ndabeni-Abrahams and receiving the letter from her on Saturday.
“The board is busy developing a comprehensive response to the issues raised,” it said. “The board continues to deliberate on this matter and remains committed to finding a solution that is in the best interests of the SABC and the South African public.”
Ndabeni-Abrahams’ spokesperson, Nthabeleng Mokitimi-Dlamini, said the minister would “communicate” after the matter was resolved.
“This is a matter of national interest and not a matter of politicking,” she said, adding that the ministry would not respond to allegations from faceless sources.
ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe denied the party had any strategy to collapse the SABC board, saying: “That is a sheer figment of the imagination. We do not have such a programme.”
He said that “all hands are on deck” to save jobs at the SABC, adding: “The new minister must be allowed to settle in and do her job.”
DA communications spokesperson Phumzile van Damme said Parliament was clear that a skills and salary audit was needed before any retrenchments, as well as a clear plan outlining how the broadcaster would sustain itself.
“We have given the SABC until our next meeting to provide this information,” she said.
“The fact that the SABC has indicated that it will retrench regardless is unsettling, and indicative of a board that is unable to do the basics and stubbornly intent on retrenching staff without doing their homework first.
“But I am also awake to the fact that the dissolution of the board could be used to appoint an interim board for the duration of the election, which will be at the beck and call of the ANC.”
Hannes du Buisson, president of the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers’ Union, said the SABC board appeared to be a “law unto themselves” and “responsible for the first full-blown strike in 20 years at the SABC”.
“This board has absolutely no compassion for SABC employees, whom they regard as numbers – and no appreciation and acknowledgment for highly trained professional broadcasters,” he said.