Ed Herbst: Junk status SABC stuck with 1980s Betamax as cash crisis deepens

Ed Herbst, in this piece, once again brilliantly paints a picture of how broken our public broadcaster (or, is that state broadcaster) the SABC really is. Apart from the broadcaster failing to switch over to digital and still using Betamax and VHS cassettes, Herbst outlines how the pillaging of the SABC by the ANC started in earnest in the early days of South Africa’s new dispensation. The seeds of corruption were sown back then and Hlaudi and his motley crew simply took it to another level. The SABC is now said to need billions of rands in bailouts just to get by. What will be left behind is scary to think of. A functioning democracy needs a solid public broadcaster, and South Africa is at risk of losing it. – Gareth van Zyl

More magic available at www.jerm.co.za.

By Ed Herbst*

‘The acting group chief executive of the SABC, James Aguma, informed the portfolio committee on communications, as well as the standing committee on public accounts that there is no financial crisis at the SABC just last month. It is apparent now that he was not fully honest.’

Phumzile van Damme City Press 20/3/2017

‘ … the SABC’s Auckland Park headquarters and its regional offices across the nation are caught in a bizarre time warp, working as if it’s still living in the era of the Sony Walkman, VHS video cassettes and Betamax video players.’

Thinus Ferreira SABC tells parliament: It’s 2017 but we’re using tapes like it’s 1980. 22/5/2016

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

The average South African has come to accept the grotesque levels of incompetence of the ANC’s deployed cadres and the stupefying scale of their vulturine looting with sour resignation but a recent article by specialist broadcast reporter Thinus Ferreira nevertheless leaves one flabbergasted.

The SABC is still working with 1980s tape technology, more than a decade after the rest of the broadcasting industry converted to digital.

Just when we thought that the ANC had plumbed the depths with Dina Pule, they gave us Faith Muthambi.

Just when we thought that the ANC had reached the bottom of the barrel with Snuki Zikalala, they gave us Hlaudi Motsoeneng and Jimi Matthews.

Just when you thought that the ANC had reached rock-bottom with Ben Ngubabane, they gave us Ellen Tshabalala and Mbulaheni Maguvhe.

Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo has indicated to Parliament that the R1.4bn bailout of the SABC in November 2009 is chump change compared to what the state broadcaster needs now.

While the SABC owes soapie and documentary producers R100m and its top executives like Nomso Philiso splurge on overseas trips, Dlodlo tells Parliament that it also lacks the money to convert from analogue to digital TV – a deadline which came and went two years ago.

But wait, there’s more!

Former Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi

Let’s not forget that the ANC regards preventative maintenance as a ‘Western Paradigm’ and that after television screens across the country went dark in April and October 2014, Hlaudi Motsoeneng sent the head of technology, Sipho Masinga on an inspection tour of all SABC buildings throughout the country.

When he reported that the SABC was running on empty technologically because of two decades without investment and that many of its buildings and its lifts were not safe, Motsoeneng suspended and then fired him. Masinga’s stark message was that the cost of infrastructure repair and modernising obsolete technology would be at least R2bn.

Ferreira’s article resonated with me because in 2005, the year I asked for early retirement with no employment in prospect because life in the SABC’s Sea Point news office had become untenable, I wrote an angry note complaining about the fact that the bulky and obsolete cassette tape recorders used by my radio reporter colleagues routinely broke down on assignment. This meant that they had to record their interviews on our video camera which caused further delays back at the office when their interviews had to be converted for radio use. At the time, their rivals on commercial radio stations were using sound recorders the size of your palm.

The ANC took control of the SABC in 1992.

Persona non grata

White managers, particularly white male Afrikaans managers, quickly got the message that they were now persona non grata. They were offered a severance package of one month’s salary for every year worked up to a maximum of 24 years and it was made clear to them that, should they choose to stay, they would never again get promotion on merit. This was the ANC’s tit for tat version of the National Party’s job reservation policies. But this time, in the ANC’s ‘new’ ‘non-racial’ South Africa, whites were the victims.

In the Sea Point regional office of the SABC, our highly-regarded Regional Manager, Henry Meyer, left and I will never forget the first meeting we, as staff, had with his successor, Sam Dodgen.

Dodgen was completely unknown in the broadcasting sector, completely unknown anywhere in fact having risen without trace. But the pervasive rumour at the time was that he was related in some way, perhaps by marriage, to a member of the ‘new’ ‘transformed’ SABC board.

He was a short man so they provided a box for him to stand on. As we listened to him in the foyer of the building, we were increasingly aghast, increasingly filled with a prescient sense of ominous foreboding.

“Within one year I am going to have a satellite dish on every shack in Khayelitsha!” he screeched.

Within one year he was gone – having blown his entertainment budget for the year in the first three months of his tenure, a period when he left the administration of the building and its operations – about which he knew nothing and contributed nothing – to the existing managerial staff.

This was a foretaste of the incompetent management, nepotism and corruption that became commonplace in the civil service and in SOEs once the ANC gained control of them.

Venetian mask

You couldn’t make this up but Sam Dodgen was to reappear briefly about a decade later – this time in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court with a Venetian mask in front of his face to hide his identity from news cameras.

The story is told in noseweek Issue #103 (May 2008) under the headline ‘Spinning a liner’.

The intro read: How to make a mint in the passenger cruise business when you haven’t got a ship.’ The saga was also documented on Carte Blanche and it involved offering sea cruises at unbelievably low rates when the only asset of ‘Royal African Cruises’ had was a website featuring a digitally-manipulated image of a real cruise liner.

One of the attractions offered was ‘submarine trips’ to well-known shipwrecks on the South African coast:

‘An unusual feature of the company’s cruise offerings will be underwater submarine trips with a viewing window. A 10-seater submarine, to be based on the vessel, will be able to submerge to depths of up to 125m.’

The money poured in but when the excited tourists, the victims of Dodgen’s scam, arrived in Durban harbour there was no ship and their money was gone.

Thereafter the process of decline and decay continued inexorably both at the SABC and at Rocklands Villas, a row of decades-old duplex apartments behind the main SABC building in Sea Point which was used to house staff.

In what I assume was a scam, the ‘new’ ‘transformed’ SABC evicted all its employees from Rocklands Villas. Some were maintenance technicians on 24-hour call but others were lower income employees who were allowed to live there on what amounted to a very favourable rental. The latter employees were from the Cape Flats and, in what I called “District Six revisited”, these scatterlings were once again cast adrift by the ‘transformed’ SABC management.

Rocklands Villas. (Photo: Ed Herbst)

Thereafter the duplexes were stripped, their ornate cast iron and tiled fireplaces were thrown onto a heap at the back of the SABC building and employees were told to take them if they so wished.

My subjective assessment is that the idea was to sell these duplexes as chic business premises and to make a financial killing.

One of the fireplaces which was ripped out of the Rocklands Villas duplexes by SABC managers hoping to make a quick buck. (Photo: Ed Herbst)

Big mistake

What the SABC schemers had not realised is that Johan Schreuder, a technician who had lived there, had registered Rocklands Villas as a heritage building.

Like so many others, Johan left the SABC but he had very happy memories of the complex, the tiny gardens, the happy New Year’s Eve street parties, the easy access to the Rockland Beach for children and so he took the trouble to register it in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act, Act 25 of 1999.

Stymied by the heritage classification, the SABC – now firmly under ANC control – allowed the complex to become a slum tenement, a haven for drug dealers, prostitutes, vagrants and feral street children, all of which impacted negatively on us as SABC employees and the surrounding community – to the complete indifference of the state broadcaster. Then, further damage was caused when the squatters caused a fire and the SABC Sea Point management was very probably disappointed that the building did not burn down altogether.

SABC building in Sea Point, Cape Town.

This is the ward of Alderman JP Smith (DA) and he recalls Rocklands Villas as ‘special kind of hell for the City, but also the neighbours.’

In December 2009 the COCT (City of Cape Town) issued a press release which I proof read when I worked as a consultant in the municipality’s media department – one of the happiest periods of my professional life because the COCT is the most efficient municipality by far in the country – precisely because it is not controlled by the ANC.

It read:

‘The City of Cape Town yesterday (22 December) obtained a High Court Order ordering the SABC to within two months repair, clean and repaint the buildings known as Rocklands Villas, situated behind the SABC Building in Beach Road, Sea Point.

‘The order also requires the SABC to prevent any further occupation of the buildings.’

In the press release Councillor Smith says: ‘This is a warning to all slumlords in the city – if we can make the SABC get their house in order, we can clean up your building as well! We are tired of property owners behaving with contempt for the law.’

And that is what the state broadcaster had become, a slumlord and the country is becoming increasingly disillusioned with the ANC’s constantly-manifest contempt for the law.

Foetid passages

Rocklands Villas, a tangible metaphor for the consequences of the ANC’s cadre deployment policy and the consequent countrywide decay, is now barricaded and unoccupied, having lost millions of rands in value. Rooms which once echoed to the happy laughter of children now hear only the ghostly rustle of rats, scurrying along foetid, flame-scarred passages.

It should be on the itinerary of every tourism company in Cape Town because it is a very real symbol of what has become of this country since the ANC took control and of what it is yet to become.

What had once been the happiest and most successful SABC news department in the country was, within a few years, eviscerated when Jeffrey Twala, a friend of ANC politicians like Ngconde Balfour and Mcebisi Skwatsha was appointed as Regional Editor in the Western Cape and all news detrimental to the interests of the ANC was banned – a prelude to what is happening now.

Eighteen months ago we were assured by Ben Ngubane, the nightmarish Hlaudi Motsoeneng and James Aguma that the SABC was firmly in the black, not least because of Motsoeneng’s 90% local content music policy. None of this was true and the reality is very different. Now Ngubane welcomes Brian Molefe back to Eskom, James Aguma is always sick when called to testify before Parliament, the maniacal Hlaudi Motsoeneng is doing everything possible to avoid appearing before the disciplinary hearing that he once claimed he welcomed and the overburdened taxpayer will once again have to pick up the tab.

All part of the Tsunami of Sleaze: the ANC’s ‘good story to tell.’

  • Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.
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