With 29 million listeners across 19 radio stations in South Africa, the SABC has a tremendous responsibility to the people of the nation. With many tumultuous years behind them, including multiple changes to senior management and its board members, the company is at a crossroads, urgently needing to start turning the tide in the wake of highly publicised mismanagement, funding problems, the lack of digitisation and political interference. In the wake of an even more challenging landscape brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic — with the recent announcement of retrenchments included — what is the SABC doing to start the process of turning things around?

Today’s Radio Days Africa session set out to answer this complicated question, with moderator Franz Krüger sitting down to discuss this with SABC COO Ian Plaatjies, alongside gathering insights from Duduetsang Makuse (the National Coordinator at the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Commission) and Hannes du Bisson (President at the Broadcasting, Electronic, Media & Allied Workers Union). The panel expressed their opinions relative to a presentation from Ian outlining the SABC’s turnaround plan, which highlighted the importance (and the massive undertaking) of transformation relative to revenue, content, business models & platforms, processes, people, culture and structure.

“We are in the digital vortex, in the eye of the storm,” Ian said as he kicked off the presentation. “Before digital, our mantra was ‘content is king’, but we are now moving towards one of ‘the consumer experience is king’”. The SABC is facing the challenge of marrying the two throughout all aspects of their operations, while lagging substantially behind on a plan that was meant to have the company equipped for the rise of digital by no later than 2015. Five years later, the delay has meant that while 4.5 million households are still consuming information on analogue solutions, over 10 million others have already turned to other digital solutions presented by competitors. 

“We’re rapidly reinventing ourselves with a new business model,” Ian proceeded to add with a nod to an “adapt or die” mentality that is crucial in this critical moment for the organisation. Briefly, the new business model includes key considerations around embracing 4IR and digital migration, data management, leveraging broadcast and broadband opportunities, exploiting revenue sharing partnerships for content, as well as introducing a plan to empower and energise digital savvy employees through what is being called a ‘cultural revitalisation plan’. This ties into a lengthy turnaround plan, which is publicly available and which Ian admitted that the SABC is “probably ten years too late for”.

The problem is that there is absolutely no public money available to help execute the lengthy plan, and Ian affirmed that the SABC has been told that there will be no more government bailouts, nor will there be any grant funding available. On top of a 70% default rate on TV licenses in South Africa, the outlook for revenue generation, especially in the wake of the massive advertising cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic, is somewhat grim. Ian’s presentation suggests that the SABC is subsequently pushing hard to change the relationship with DSTV and other carriers (which effectively host SABC channels and are an alternative people have turned to) to find a way for them to collect licence fees on their behalf. “It would cost R22.08 on each DSTV subscriber to collect licence fees for a year,” according to Duduetsang. “The inequality and unemployment factor [especially in a COVID-19 landscape] is going to be a huge deterrent to collecting public fees,” she added. In her view, both sides are going to have to meet in the middle. Ian referenced a ‘pre-coronavirus’ plan that included the public broadcaster making up its large deficit and breaking even in two years, which has now become unrealistic. “COVID has left us with a deeper hole,” he said. “We need to come up with other alternatives to close the gap”, he said. 

Generating additional avenues for revenue is not a be-all and end-all solution, however. “Digitising our business is going to make things worse” Ian said, in lieu of automation and the job losses that will come along with that on a global scale. Although referencing headcount and skills development in his presentation, the recent retrenchment announcement from the SABC clearly had very little to do with automation and digital transformation. “The problem is that the low hanging fruit [of cost cutting] are always to cut employees,” Hannes said. He argued that the SABC is in a unique position, as there is no other broadcaster in the world that by law, must broadcast in 11 different languages. According to him, special skills are needed and we need to ensure that we don’t remove the value chain across these languages. Echoing the SABC’s responsibility to preserve culture and citing the retrenchments, Duduetsang questioned whether the SABC has truly exhausted all their options. “You can’t take a hammer to the situation,” she added. “In this case, you need a scalpel”. 

While it’s clear that SABC faces numerous short-term challenges and multiple holes to plug, it’s important not to forget the bigger picture. How does the panel see public broadcasting in South Africa in the soon-to-be completely digital world? According to Duduetsang, we need a public broadcaster that uses all platforms, and delivers content in all the official languages. She added that we need to amend regulations and legislation to give them flexibility to survive in this new environment. Hannes also suggested that “If the commercial side is unable to fund the public service side of the organisation, it has to do away with that part, and it has to be funded by the government only”. As Ian’s presentation suggests, this may be a pipe dream. Duduetsang offered a slight caveat to the idea by saying that “if we get into a situation where public money becomes available, it should be ring fenced right away”. Both her and Franz — who reiterated the point by giving an example of what the BBC has done — agreed that we need to see some experimentation from the SABC moving forward.

Experimentation and innovation may be exactly what the public broadcaster needs to start to turn the tide against what is fast becoming a tarnished legacy. While it’s clear that the SABC has a detailed plan to digitise its business model and to transform its operations, it’s difficult not to expect the short term economic challenges, looming retrenchments and ongoing funding problems to act as a deterrent to a plan that clearly should have been initiated a decade ago. The discussion today highlighted that we have a long way to go towards a fully integrated, self-sustaining public broadcaster and the unique South African landscape poses a series of ongoing challenges that will need to be addressed. Let’s hope for action and movement, in order for us to have an entirely different conversation about the SABC at Radio Days Africa in ten, or perhaps even five years from now.