A fully-fledged strike and broadcast blackout is looming at the SABC, as staff fight back against the impending retrenchments of hundreds of employees at the cash-strapped public broadcaster.
Communications Workers Union (CWU) president Clyde Mervin said of the proposed blackout: “It’s not a threat, we mean business. If they are not going to withdraw the letters by 5pm today [Thursday], we will black out the SABC at 1pm tomorrow (Friday).”
During a media briefing, Mervin said the union had the support of the workers at SABC, Cosatu and its affiliates in the planned action.
CWU general secretary, Aubrey Tshabalala, said they resolved to take to the streets to demand a stop to the planned retrenchments, and the withdrawal of redundancy letters issued to employees by management.
“We have taken a decision to go to the streets. Makhathini [SABC board chairperson Bongumusa Makhathini] must test us, we will make sure that nothing goes on air. We will be using every arsenal we have to attack,” Tshabalala said.
Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi expressed solidarity and support for CWU and its members at SABC. She accused the SABC board of not understanding the corporation’s public mandate and vowed that Cosatu would stand by the CWU and the affected workers.
“This is not going to happen. They must know that if they are retrenching a worker, they are retrenching a worker and his family. This is a bad decision,” Losi said.
Workers protest on air
Workers were joined by external organisations such as the Congress of the People spokesperson Dennis Bloem and party executive member Pakes Dikgetsi, as well as members of the ANC, ANC Youth League, and the Economic Freedom Fighters.
Throughout this week, staff used their live broadcasts to raise concerns about the conduct of the SABC executives and board members. In their reporting, they exposed the SABC leadership as people who did not know what they were doing, and who had no understanding of the corporation they were running.
Morning Live co-hosts, Sakina Kamwendo and Leanne Manas, hit hard at the executive management and board members during their show in the past few days. Kamwendo asked Makhathini tough questions about his knowledge of the events at the corporation.
She said Makhathini and his board did not understand what they were doing, and that in many instances there were staff shortages at the broadcaster.
She invited Makhathini and his board to visit and take a walk on the studio floors of the SABC to see for themselves the staff shortages that included unmanned cameras, and cameramen who single-handedly operated multiple cameras alone.
“Come through Mr Makhathini, you don’t understand. Your executive doesn’t understand the operations at SABC,” Kamwendo said.
Other staff members also delivered jabs at the bosses earlier in the week. Senior political journalist Samkele Maseko, while interviewing ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, questioned the ANC’s failure to act against executives who earned high salaries while employees earned a pittance.
Both Maseko and his colleague, Ntebo Mokobo, demanded that the ANC intervene and even asked president Cyril Ramaphosa to act to stop the retrenchments. They asked Magashule why the ANC failed to intervene earlier, and were only waking up now that things had spiralled out of control.
Magashule defended the ANC, saying the party was ready to intervene but the solution to the problem at SABC lay with the workers themselves. He encouraged them to use their united power to fight, saying the tripartite alliance rejected the SABC retrenchments.
Criticism of management
Earlier this week, during a meeting with some SABC executives in the newsroom, television journalist, Chriselda Lewis and foreign editor, Sophie Mokoena strongly criticised the news chief, Phathiswa Magopeni. Lewis, along with others, rejected a newsroom structure that Magopeni presented for restructuring purposes.
“It’s not okay. Take your structure and go,” said Lewis.
The SABC news staff forum took the matter to Minister of Communications, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. The forum said while they supported Magopeni’s office and would defend its existence should there be a need, they rejected Magopeni’s newsroom structure.
They accused the SABC leadership of destroying the corporation and embracing commercial interests at the expense of the public mandate which was the basis of its founding.