Ndabeni-Abrahams would rather quit than give blank cheque to bankrupt SABC

Fine-tuning of the SABC rescue plan to be concluded by September

04 July 2019 - 10:27 By THABO MOKONE
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Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Image: Eugene Coetzee

Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has told parliament she's prepared to quit her job rather than give the cash-strapped SABC a loan guarantee while it does not have a solid turnaround strategy.

Ndabeni-Abrahams dropped the bombshell during a meeting between public entities within her department and parliament's portfolio committee on communications, at which she had a heated exchange with DA MP Phumzile van Damme.

Van Damme accused Ndabeni-Abrahams of being "flippant" about the SABC's cash crunch, arguing that it had, up to now, taken her department and the national treasury six months to approve or reject the public broadcaster's loan guarantee application.

The SABC currently owes suppliers about R1.9bn, while it struggles to continue paying salaries. Its buildings now pose an occupational health and safety risk to its employees after years of no maintenance due to lack of money.

Under pressure from Van Damme, Ndabeni-Abrahams said she would rather step down from cabinet than give money to the SABC when she did not know how it would be spent.

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Van Damme also raised a leaked letter Ndabeni-Abrahams wrote to the SABC board last year, in which she threatened to stop talking to the board unless it dropped plans to retrench hundreds of workers at Auckland Park in Johannesburg.

"Indeed I did say that I will not be a shareholder that goes and asks for money while I don't know what the money is going to be used for," the minister told MPs.

"If the honourable member feels that's unministerial and disrespectful, I might as well step down from the position because if I come to parliament and make a request for funds on behalf of the department and the entity, I've got to take responsibility fully on how the money is going to be utilised.

"And as much as I said that in a letter, SABC will tell you, honourable member, I did not stop engaging with them, as much as I said that in the letter."

Ndabeni-Abrahams said another meeting to discuss the SABC's loan guarantee application with the national treasury was due to take place on Thursday.

A treasury agency, the Government Technical Advisory Centre (GTAC), has now taken over the development of a turnaround plan for the SABC after government grew unhappy with what the national broadcaster's top brass had presented.

Omega Shelembe, the deputy director-general of state-owned companies' (SOC) oversight in Ndabeni-Abrahams' department, said they wanted an SABC turnaround strategy that responded to a changed broadcast environment.

"You need to be persuaded that the turnaround plan is credible and workable. So in our assessment of the turnaround plan, we had concerns."

Shelembe said: "From our view we need a turnaround strategy that talks about, among other things, how has technology disrupted broadcasting. When you start to tease how technology is impacting on your business you then are forced to design an organisation of the future that talks to new technologies. It cannot be business as usual.

"We want to develop an SABC which responds to new technologies. In that we will create a new business model which will talk to what kind of content we provide. This is so important, especially in the context of how over-the-top platforms are essentially eating into the lunch of your traditional broadcasters."

Shelembe said fine-tuning of the SABC rescue plan would be concluded by September.

However, SABC board chair Bongumusa Makhathini rejected suggestions that they had no plan to return the SABC to the black.

He said they had so far managed to save the SABC almost R1bn by introducing strict cost-containment measures, among other initiatives.

"What has happened, with the help of the shareholder, was to submit that turnaround to the GTAC team, just to enhance it. So the notion that there's no turnaround strategy is wrong and I'm not going to let that one go without being clarified, because (that's) what has kept SABC running for the past 12 months," said Makhathini.

Ndabeni-Abrahams said she would soon be tabling a revised version of the Broadcasting Amendment Bill.

The previous version of the proposed piece of law was rejected by parliament as it sought to remove the role of the legislature in the appointment of the SABC board and reduce the number of non-executive directors from 12 to nine. It had been championed by former communications minister Faith Muthambi.

Ndabeni-Abrahams said the bill would address these and other concerns raised last year.

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