Saturday, November 21, 2020

Black Friday: SABC News anchors all wear black to protest against broadcaster's retrenchment plan as concerns over a possible on-air blackout grows.

by Thinus Ferreira

As concerns about a possible on-air SABC blackout and "black-on-air" situation grows, SABC News anchors and reporters on Friday surreptitiously joined their colleagues who were protesting outside through quietly wearing black attire on-air.

On Friday SABC News anchors and field reporters appeared dressed in black behind the anchor desk in Auckland Park and out covering the news - only the second time ever that they joined in making a statement on air through what they're wearing.

Angry SABC staff first organised a silent "Black Friday" clothing protest on 22 July 2016 when they wore black in open revolt against the then SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng and in support of their fired so-called "SABC8" news colleagues. 

Yesterday they all donned black clothing on-air again to send a strong and unified silent message.

SABC workers are protesting about the embattled and overstaffed South African public broadcaster's retrenchment plan in which 400 workers will likely lose their jobs. 

Some political parties like the ANC and EFF have joined trade unions and protesting SABC workers on Friday who picketed outside SABC buildings across South Africa.

Politicians and their populist rhetoric have provided no solutions for the SABC's deepening financial quagmire except politicising an already difficult issue and saying they don't want workers to lose their jobs. 

Various factions are now trying to distil the SABC battle over job cuts into a politicised battle between the SABC board - painted as "bad" - and SABC workers who are "good". In reality, the issues and the problems at the SABC are extremely complex and the challenges around the need for retrenchments much more multi-faceted. 

The SABC board have said in 2019 and again this year that if the ANC-led government doesn't want job cuts it will need to commit to give the SABC an additional R1 billion per year. The SABC that just made a net loss of R511 is on track to make another loss of at least R1.2 billion next year.

Meanwhile, staff say that SABC top management executives took a lazy, uninformed and unworkable cookie-cutter approach in deciding on cuts within the proposed new SABC structure.

As part of their controversial restructuring SABC execs have scrapped SABC News TV current affairs shows on SABC2 like Zwa Maramani in Tshivenda and Ngula Ya Vutivi in Xitsonga. For now, Fokus in Afrikaans on SABC2, Cutting Edge in Nguni on SABC1 and Special Assignment in English on SABC3 will remain on-air.

Hannes du Buisson, Bemawu spokesperson, said that "some of the complaints from staff are people saying 'My position on the system is as an administrator. The SABC scrapped my position but I'm the only one at the SABC that must pay certain content licensing fees."

The trade unions said that if the SABC fires permanent staff and then replace them again with freelancers and independent contractors that the personnel cost won't go away but that the cost of paying for labour would just end up somewhere else on the balance sheet.

Black-on-air concerns
Meanwhile concerns are growing around a possible blackout of the SABC's TV channels and radio stations - a situation known as "black-on-air", in particular the SABC News (DStv 404) TV channel.

Interestingly, it is both SABC executives, the SABC board and ordinary SABC staff's interest for SABC News to remain on-air without any blackout.

SABC News as a TV news channel - similar to eNCA, Newzroom Afrika and the now-defunct ANN7 and SABC Encore - was commissioned by MultiChoice and is made exclusively for the pay-TV provider who pays for it. 

The contract, worth millions of rand funnelled to SABC coffers, comes with clauses that include penalties for non-performance and non-delivery - like on-air blackouts.  

If there is to be any blackout of SABC News on DStv because of a strike or possible sabotage, the SABC that is already struggling financially, could lose even more money if MultiChoice enacts any penalty clauses over content disruption and decides to withhold or pay the SABC less.

To prevent a SABC blackout if staff strike or sabotage the channel feed or operations, Ian Plaatjes, SABC chief operating officer, told parliament's portfolio committee on Thursday that "a robust contingency plan" exists especially around SABC News.

He said that it was necessary to relook the plan since people getting retrenched were part of the original plan."Some of the names on there were people who might be affected and we just had to double-check that as well," he said.

Late on Friday the SABC issued a statement saying the broadcaster "is fully aware of a plan to create a 'blackout' on our platforms. We can confirm that there are contingency plans in place that will kick in immediately should this self-induced crisis be precipitated. There will be consequence management against any employee who is involved in the planned blackout".

The SABC said that it "has a statutory duty and public mandate to provide uninterrupted radio and television services for millions of South Africans" and that it "wants to assure the public that we remain committed to delivering our public mandate of informing, educating and entertaining South Africans, irrespective of any planned misconduct or ill-discipline".