THE recent controversies at the SABC are a clear signal that the organisation suffers from an ambivalence of purpose.

The abrupt resignations of members, leading to the dissolution of the board, labour disputes, ill-conceived managerial appointments, the Zapiro debacle and a variety of other issues show that the SABC is battling to make the transition from a state-owned broadcaster to a public broadcaster.

To make matters worse, the SABC also has a licence agreement that allows it to operate as a commercial station.

Lack of clarity and purpose in its operations has dire consequences for the organisation and impedes it from fulfilling its mandate as a public broadcaster. Firstly, the ambiguity lends itself to confusion when it comes to its funding and financing options.

If the organisation operates purely as a public broadcaster, its funding must come directly from Treasury. The idea that a combination of licence fees, meagre state funding and a trickle from commercial activities such as advertising can finance its operational requirements is fanciful, if not misguided.


The second aspect of the SABC's haphazard approach as it continues to project itself as both a commercial and public entity is that it renders the corporation open to manipulation from vested interests.

Advertisers expect certain standards to be met before they can commit themselves to doing business with the SABC and so does government if it is spending money on the corporation.

In the case of the state, manipulation could come in the form of the ruling elite using it as a government mouthpiece. When that happens, editorial and programming control, among other things, are compromised, as it seems to be the case with the Zapiro debacle.

The third aspect of the SABC's present positioning in the "market" is that it does not have the power (financial, legal and political) to pursue opportunities in the broadcasting industry, both locally and internationally, because it is falling further and further from the "action".

For example, at the dawn of democracy in 1994, the SABC emerged from a pre-regulated era in which it owned most of broadcasting rights in sports, entertainment and state-sponsored events. Now, all major sports events have moved to the Multichoice/DStv stable, including soccer - the crown jewel in local programming.

In the post-Sisulu and Matlare era, the SABC made terrific inroads into pan-African broadcasting and was the first mover in telling African stories, broadcasting news and talking to issues of representation of the African story through channels such as SABC Africa (TV) and Africa Channel (radio).

All this is history now.

The confusion regarding the role of the SABC has seen it missing out on opportunities and therefore gradually eroding its standing in the market while rivals such as the Multichoice/DStv stable and e.tv are gaining ground.

For example, the Multichoice/DStv stable is delivering top quality programming in sports via Supersport and has no fewer than five channels dedicated to Africa. e.tv recently launched a dedicated news channel.


Though it might not be at the same level as BBC, Al-Jazeera and Sky News, indications are it could mature into something special.

However, it is not all gloom for the SABC. The organisation seems to have done a splendid job on radio, thanks to some bizarre code in the Independent Broadcasting Act that allowed it to have exclusive licence to operate nationwide radio channels.

It is in this arena that public broadcasting seems to have taken root and even the few private/commercial radio stations have not been able to grasp the nettle of talking to approximately 46million South Africans in languages and programming that resonate with the people.

On the television side, it is now clear that the SABC will not be able to compete in its present format because of its lack of funding, talent or organisational strength, which are a consequence of its dual role.

It may be prudent for the public broadcaster to adopt the BBC model in which funding comes almost exclusively from the state and it is answerable directly toParliament.

l Merryman Kunene works for The Times. He is a writer and researcher.