Analysis: 5 things you need to know about the SABC board chaos

The resignation of four members of the SABC board this week has caused some confusion about where it leaves the public broadcaster.

This week, News24 revealed that John Matisonn, deputy chairperson Khanyisile Kweyama and Krish Naidoo had tendered their resignations to the Presidency.

On Thursday, the fourth board member – Mathata Tsedu – also resigned, the Presidency confirmed. President Cyril Ramaphosa has accepted the resignations.

All four have asked Ramaphosa to waive their three-month notice periods, lending credence to allegations by DA MP and communications spokesperson Phumzile van Damme that the ANC was interfering in the board's affairs.

It is alleged that there is an active effort to collapse the board after it reached an impasse with the government over looming retrenchments which the board maintains is inevitable, even if the ailing public broadcaster can get the multi-billion cash injection it desperately needs to keep the lights on and bills paid.

The board previously revealed that it would reach a D-Day scenario by March 2019 because current cost-cutting methods were not enough to stem the financial blood loss.

READ: Unions warn SABC: You retrench, we shut you down

As such, it decided to embark on a retrenchment process with an eye on cutting 900 permanent jobs and getting rid of 1 200 freelancers.

But this has sparked fierce backlash from unions, opposition parties and the ANC and brand-new communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams who declared this weekend that she would no longer be willing to engage with the board.

The wedge issue is the retrenchments – with Ndabeni-Abrahams echoing the popular position that no retrenchments should take place.

The SABC, albeit state owned, is probably one of only a handful of broadcasting and media companies in the world that has not undertaken staff cuts in the past decade.

As of right now, three of the largest media companies in South Africa have all undergone a retrenchment process in the past year alone.

The issues are plentiful, but here's five things you need to know, for now:

The SABC is broke. Literally.

As it stands, the SABC needs around R3bn cash to try and right a badly listing ship. Bad management, worse deals signed with greedy sport clubs and a mess of corruption has led the SABC down a very slippery slope of financial disaster.

Critics of the board have claimed that retrenchments are only a small plaster on a massive wound, and won't offer any long-term solutions.

But even more crucially, the SABC has already had to come up with payment schedules for its suppliers and soon won't be able to pay any of its staff.

If serious intervention does not happen now, there won't be an SABC left to provide a single job.

Skeleton crew

In October 2017, former president Jacob Zuma appointed 11 people to the SABC board.

In November 2017, Rachel Kalidass resigned over candidates who were considered for the appointment of chief executive officer.

In March this year, Febe Potgieter-Gqubule resigned to take up a position at the ANC headquarters Luthuli House as the party's elections general manager.

Soon thereafter in July, Victor Rambau also tendered his resignation, which left the board with eight people and four vacancies. A full board is made up of 12 non-executive directors.

This week, the resignations of Kweyama, Naidoo, Matisonn and Tsedu further decimated the board down to just four.

This includes board chairperson Bongumusa Makhathini, Dinkwanyane Mohuba, Jack Phalane and Michael Markovitz.

Delayed appointments

The parliamentary portfolio committee is responsible for recommending candidates to fill the vacant board positions.

The committee had not worked towards filling vacancies from November 2017 when the board was short of two people.

Neither did it act when Kalidass resigned in March, nor when Rambau resigned in July.  

Now that crisis has struck and four more members have resigned this week, the committee has been found wanting in the fulfilment of its duty to recommend candidates for positions on the board in a timeous manner.

If the vacancies had been filled when they arose, the four resignations this week would not have rendered the board inquorate.

Drama, drama, drama...

Historically, the control of the SABC board has been a key prerogative for the ruling party, albeit an unspoken, but generally open, secret.

Van Damme alluded to the same in a statement she released on Tuesday, slamming the ANC for interfering in the affairs of the board.

SABC insiders have told News24 that essentially, the current board is far too independent and impartial for the liking of the powers that be.

This is perfectly framed by the board's decision to undertake a retrenchment process despite serious criticism and even all three current and former communications ministers making it clear that this could not happen.

The fact of the matter is the structure of the SABC can never be sustained, with more senior and mid-level managers than employees.

The board is being criticised for embarking on this process, but most forget that a condition of a guarantee given by National Treasury in 2009 instructed the SABC to cut jobs.

Obviously, this was never done and now salaries take up 43% of the broadcasters' annual costs.

With elections around the corner, the vital tool the SABC is during election campaigns cannot be emphasised enough.

Ramaphosa seems to be in on it

In the past few days, News24 has been told that an active effort to collapse the board seemed to be under way. This includes the parliamentary portfolio committee's failure to fill vacancies and current and previous minister's reticence in stepping in to facilitate any sort of bail-out by the government.

Most recently, the fact that Ramaphosa accepted the resignations of Kweyama, Naidoo, Matisonn and Tsedu  - which includes waiving their three-month notice periods – is a strong indication to SABC insiders that the president and Luthuli House are in agreement that the way forward is to try and get a new, more pliable board installed before the May 2019 elections.

The fact that Parliament will be in recess soon until February next year, is also a concern.

Fortunately, the SABC board cannot simply be shown the door. Parliament has to take the decision, or the committee rather, to dissolve the board – must motivate the reasons for this, and furthermore hold an inquiry to determine the veracity of the issues.

But this is not a process that can unfold overnight.