The SABC is not a candidate for privatisation

By Opinion Time of article published Jun 29, 2021

Share this article:

Siseko Maposa

Cape Town - In the wake of SAA selling 51% of its stake to a consortium comprising Global Airways and Harith General Partners, debates into the qualities and shortcomings of privatisation in South Africa have intensified. Given its decades long financial issues, a proposed candidate for privatisation has been the SABC.

The debate around privatising the SABC is over two decades old. In 2000, in a probe into the restructuring of the public broadcaster, Gemini consultants told the board of SABC that an ideal SABC news service would fully exploit business opportunities – that is, privatise.

As the SABC announced several years of revenue losses between 2009 and 2019, debates intensified in Parliament with government highly divided on the matter.

Economic liberals are prone to treat privatisation as the “god of regulatory solutions” for state entities which have been proven to be dysfunctional and non-profitable. Without much investigation or reflection, market fundamentalists propose that privatisation will lead to greater efficiency, innovation, and competitiveness – every benefit seemingly related to accumulation and profit generation.

I scorn at some of these contentions. At most times, these arguments are over-simplistic and fail to appreciate the complexities involved with privatising a state entity which holds widespread social significance.

The question should have never been, will privatising the SABC work or not? Instead, it ought to be who will privatising the SABC work for? Caution must be applied in answering this question, especially when international research is taken into consideration.

Renowned global economist Robert Reich, in the series titled the Truths About Privatization, notes that privatisation should not be embarked upon when the purpose of the service is to bring the nation together.

One of the pivotal mandates of the SABC is to share cultural stories of significance to the nation through dynamic storytelling and educational content development. This content is pivotal in solidifying cultural institutions, shared identity, and democratic consolidation.

Privatising the SABC would expose its national public mandate to the whims of unfettered local and international private content markets, resulting in competitive considerations overriding the national imperative.

In a democratic context, this is unpalatable as public broadcasters play an essential role in keeping citizens informed with news on local and international current affairs – private broadcasters are poor at doing this.

Research in Great Britain shows that people exposed to news on public television are better-informed than those exposed to news on private TV.

The SABC also cannot be treated in the same manner as SAA. Despite its supposed national appeal, the fact of the matter is that the SAA will always be destined for servicing the interests of the middle to upper class citizens of South Africa.

The SABC on the other hand, through its various channels and radio stations, provides a fundamental service for majority of poor black South Africans.

Importantly, the merits of privatising a public broadcaster are highly challenged. In The paradox of television privatization: When more is less, Harvey Feigenbaum shows how the privatisation of public broadcasters has fragmented advertising markets and created incentives for the increasing importation of cheap US programming.

What must not be forgotten is that the SABC’s issues are primarily driven by years of poor leadership which has resulted in its inability to secure sustainable funding and opened the door for ANC political meddling. On its funding issues, the inadequate collection of TV licence fees is a major contributor to SABC’s financial woes. The issue is exacerbated by a relatively low fee rate and high instances of piracy.

Regrettably, the SABC’s current stance on the issue of TV licence collection fees is a good example of how the entity is not thinking about the matter correctly. In its submission on the White Paper on Audio Visuals and Content Services (AAVCS), the SABC has erred by proposing that subscription broadcasters be required to collect TV licence levies from subscribers – a preposition tantamount to forcing a private entity to execute the mandate of a public institution.

Not only is this legally unacceptable, at an operational level it is practically unfeasible and counterproductive. If private entities do agree to collect TV licence fees from their subscribers, they will have the legal prerogative to charge the SABC for their services – a cost which will run into the millions.

Proposals looking at the introduction of a household TV licence levy or the South Africa Revenue Service (SARS) collecting fees have not been investigated in a genuine and thorough manner.

The SABC has also been plagued by political interference primarily intended to appease the censorship whims of the ANC. Above hindering the competitiveness of its content, this has encouraged the political take up of many unskilled individuals in the SABC – leading to tremendous employee ineptitude.

More than anything, years of haphazard policy proposals by the SABC and ANC political considerations are to blame for the entity’s difficulties. Before privatisation can be presented as a solution, these institutional issues must be comprehensively addressed.

Siseko Maposa is a political-economist who holds a Masters in International Relations at UCT.

Cape Times

Share this article: