At least we don’t have to pay a TV licence for our smartphones. That’s about the only good thing to take from the new SABC Bill being proposed in parliament.
Like the previous attempts at finding a new way to fund the SABC – instead of the absurd licence fees that only a small fraction of people still pay – this bill is out of touch with the current reality. Unlike Planet SABC, the real world doesn’t march to the beat of the ANC’s drum.
As the first SABC legislation in 24 years, the SABC Bill is “a huge disappointment,” tweeted former board member Michael Markovitz. The bill “threatens independent public media & kicks the urgent need for a new SABC funding model into touch for 3 years. Epic fail.”
The last time government changed the SABC’s funding law was in 1999 “when only 2.4m people were online in SA compared to over 44m today. Only 17% of us had mobile phones back then,” added Markovitz, now the head of GIBS Media Leadership Think Tank. “Today SA has twice as many mobile connections as there are people. SABC has been set up for failure.”
It does seem like that, doesn’t it?
Instead of dealing with the flawed current funding model – TV licenses which nine out of 10 TV-owning Saffas don’t bother to pay – it defers finding a new business model for three years. To translate that, after next year’s election, the ANC is almost certainly likely to have lost its majority.
The SABC lost R1.1 billion in the 2023 financial year, mostly because President Cyril Ramaphosa took eight months to appoint a new board.
Read More: Board-less SABC faces trouble
The bill instead makes fanciful and unrealistic suggestions of splitting the broadcaster into public and commercial services.
They “must be separately administered and a separate set of financial records and accounts are to be kept in respect of both services”, according to the bill. The money-making commercial arm must then support the public arm, and, at least knowing what’s coming, insists it should be run in “an efficient manner so as to maximise the revenues provided to the corporation”. One would think that’s the whole point of the current way the SABC is being run – except its real role remains as the government mouthpiece – a state broadcaster as opposed to a public broadcaster.
If I am not mistaken, all of this has been thought of before – and rejected. If the SABC was properly run by experienced managers who were not deployed cadres, we wouldn’t be having the conversation about the perilous state of the SABC’s finances every year.
Instead we got Hlaudi Motsoeneng.
The thinking, if that’s what you can call it, at the communications and digital technologies ministry. At least its latest incumbent, Mondli Gungubele, is a heavyweight ANC politician giving some much-needed kudos to this ministry.
However, as I wrote when he was appointed, he is “a supremely odd choice as communications minister given that he has no known expertise in what is a crucial sector for any economy”.
Read More: Painting over the communication potholes
He can only be better – in fact, anyone can be – than the minister he succeeded Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, who brought no fresh ideas or thinking to how to fund the public broadcaster. She fumbled the switch off of the old analogue signal so badly, that the courts admonished her and told her to do her homework again.
Amazingly, she is a world apart from her predecessor, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, and could at least tell you which country Zurich is in.
Even more bereft of vision was her incompetent deputy communications minister Pinky Kekana, who tried to argue that smartphones should be classified as televisions, and therefore phone owners should pay TV licenses.
“We also have other platforms where people consume content… that is where we should look at how we are able to get SABC licence fees from those gadgets,” Kekana actually told Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications in 2020.
Then she tried to get other companies to do the SABC’s job for them. “Regulation is needed on pay service providers like MultiChoice and subscription video-on-demand provider like Netflix to collect TV licence on behalf of SABC similar to municipalities collecting traffic fine….” she added.
After everyone stopped laughing, it took the ministry a whole year to go back to parliament with a barely evolved plan to still charge licence fees, but only for laptops and tablets. Really.
Read More: Now SABC tries to define laptops as TVs
This is the same department, which includes the words “digital technologies” in its name, that blew a whopping R743,644 on a so-called app store that is neither a store nor a download site. Another triumphant moment during Ntshavheni’s time as minister.