Cablegate: The South African Broadcasting Corporation (Sabc): Back To

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1. (SBU) SUMMARY: The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)
dominates broadcast media in South Africa, reaching 78% of radio
listeners and 74% of TV viewers daily. It is currently engulfed in a
battle for political control between the supporters of current South
African President Thabo Mbeki and the new ANC leadership loyal to
party president Jacob Zuma. The SABC has a long history as a
government mouthpiece, dating back to the apartheid era. Despite
efforts to recreate itself as a true "public" broadcaster after
1994, it gradually fell back into its previous role of state
broadcaster and regime supporter. The internal infighting and
political manipulation taking place currently are playing out very
publicly in non-state print and broadcast media. It is unlikely that
any reform of the SABC will take place until after the next national
elections in early 2009, if then. END SUMMARY

2. (SBU) SABC HISTORY: The South African Broadcasting Corporation
(SABC) dominates the electronic media sector in both television and
radio. Established by an act of parliament in 1976, it is a limited
liability company funded partly by government and partly through a
government-imposed levy known to the ordinary citizen as the
"license," an obligatory tax for anyone who possesses a television
set. The rest of the SABC's funding comes from advertising and
sponsorships (76% according to the corporation) and other
income-generating activities, such as rent for broadcast facilities
and investments.

3. (SBU) PHYSICAL STRUCTURE: The corporation occupies a huge
15-hectare complex in Johannesburg, dominated by a 36-story
administration building and vast television and radio centers. It
also has smaller broadcasting operations in all major urban areas
and offices and studios in several towns.

4. (SBU) The SABC employs a full-time staff of about 3,500 people
including broadcasters, producers, technicians, journalists,
accountants and legal advisers. Several thousand more people are
engaged as freelancers.

The SABC's national radio network is made up of 18 radio stations.
Fifteen of these are dedicated specifically to public service
broadcasting, including:

---11 full-spectrum stations, one in each of the official languages
of South Africa;
---a cultural service for the Indian community broadcasting in
---a regional community station broadcasting in isiXhosa and
English; and
---a community station broadcasting in the !Xu and Khwe languages of
the KhoiSan people of the Northern Cape.

For its internal coverage, Radio News uses about 13 editorial
offices, a country-wide network of about 1,300 correspondents, and
more than 2,000 news contacts.

6. (SBU) According to the All Media Products Survey (AMPS) which
measures readership, viewership and listenership of the media in the
country, SABC radio dominates South African broadcasting, attracting
the largest audiences. Of the estimated 29 million adults in South
Africa, more than 22 million listen to the radio every day, and over
19 million (or 78%) tune in to an SABC radio station.

The SABC's television network is made up of five television channels
three free-to-air and two pay-TV (SABC AFRICA and a new 24-hour news
-- Channels 1 and 2 are dedicated specifically to public
-- Channel 3 is a public commercial broadcaster;
-- The SABC AFRICA pay-TV channel is broadcast 24 hours-a-day and is
Q-- The SABC AFRICA pay-TV channel is broadcast 24 hours-a-day and is
available domestically on the encoded bouquet of the DSTV digital
satellite platform. Its primary intended audience is regional
African viewers, where it is available on cable systems; and
-- The new 24 hour-a-day SABC News channel can only be viewed using
a special decoder, which is difficult to find. Recent news reports
indicate that this 2-month old news channel is already encountering
major financial difficulties.

The three free-to-air channels attract more than 17 million adult
viewers a day or 74% of total adult viewership, according to AMPS.

decision-making body of the corporation is the Board of Directors,
consisting of twelve non-executive members nominated by the
Parliament and ratified by the President on the advice of the
National Assembly, through the Parliamentary Committee on

PRETORIA 00001165 002 OF 004

Communications. According to the SABC Act, Board members should be
selected for their qualifications, expertise and experience in the
fields of broadcasting, business practice and finance, entertainment
and education, and social and labor issues. The President also
selects the chairperson and deputy chairperson from among the twelve
appointed members of the board. The term of office for each member
is determined by the President but cannot exceed five years.

9. (SBU) The Board then appoints the Chief Executive Officer, the
Chief Operating Officer,and the Chief Financial Officer: these
together with other members (no less than 6, no more than 11)
selected by the Board from within the ranks of SABC management form
the Executive Committee responsible for administering the affairs of
the Corporation and reporting to the Board. There is no clear
process for dismissing members of the SABC Board.

10. (SBU) SABC BACKGROUND: The SABC was to all intents and purposes
a government mouthpiece during the apartheid era and suffered from a
corresponding lack of credibility. The SABC tried to recreate itself
after 1994 as a true public broadcaster, not a "state broadcaster,"
with some initial success. The first SABC Board after apartheid is
widely perceived to have been the best in the broadcaster's history,
and its selection had been called "an extraordinarily democratic
affair." Over 500 candidates were nominated, from which 45 were
short-listed. The televised hearings of the 45 nominees drew some of
the highest audience ratings in the SABC's history. The selection
process ended up being tarnished by then President FW de Klerk, who
vetoed six of the selected board members and appointed his own

11. (SBU) In the end, new President Nelson Mandela was able to
reinstate some of the vetoed board members, but a bad precedent was
set at the beginning, of politically motivated presidential
interference in the board of directors' selection process. When the
first board's mandate ran out, a new method of board selection was
instituted, run by politicians, with the parliamentary select
committee on communications interviewing the nominees and selecting
a list of names for submission to the president. This selection
method, most say, has gradually returned the SABC to its previous
role as a "state broadcaster" and government tool, albeit for the
ANC, rather than de Klerk's National Party. Over the last seven to
eight years, the corporation has been widely criticized by non-state
print and electronic media, opposition political parties, NGOs, and
the public for bias, mismanagement, and authoritarian attitudes
towards its journalists. Those within the organization who continue
the push for editorial independence are fewer and fewer, and they
are marginalized. The political "split" within the ANC has both
publicized and exacerbated the current sad state of the SABC.

During the 52nd African National Congress (ANC) conference in
Polokwane, Limpopo (December 16-20, 2007), the ruling party engaged
in an internal battle over the selection of its new leader, who will
likely succeed to the presidency of the country in the March 2009
national elections. President Thabo Mbeki, at the time holding both
the office of ANC president and that of country president, was
ousted by a large majority supporting former deputy president Jacob

13. (SBU) The battle between the two factions is ongoing, has
Q13. (SBU) The battle between the two factions is ongoing, has
resulted in several dismissals of pro-Mbeki supporters in parliament
and the rise of pro-Zuma supporters, and is playing out most
publicly in the SABC. Despite the clear mandate for change within
the ANC that was expressed in Polokwane, President Mbeki appointed a
new SABC Board of Directors on December 22, 2007, just days after
the Polokwane conference. The anger and shock among the new ANC
leadership was fully reported in the media, though not to any extent
on the SABC. The new Board took office on January 1, 2008 for a
period of five years and met for the first time on March 6, 2008.

14. (SBU) Not only the new ANC leadership was unhappy. Prior to
this, labor and civil society organizations complained in writing to
President Mbeki about nominees. The organizations argued that the
group of the nominees as a whole did not fully represent the country
as intended in the Broadcasting Act. On September 26, 2007, the
Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) General Secretary
Zwelinzima Vavi also expressed dismay: "We are aware that there has
been interference in the appointment of the SABC board. We had hoped
we would get more independent thinkers onto the board, people who
could withstand the pressure and the temptation to toe the state
line, instead of acting as a proper public broadcaster." Cosatu
strongly supported Zuma before, during and after the Polokwane
Conference and is currently considering a court challenge to the
composition of the Board.

15. (SBU) On December 24,2007, the South African Communist Party
issued a statement strongly condemning Mbeki's unilateral decision

PRETORIA 00001165 003 OF 004

to appoint the new board. "As we said before, this is a board that
has no broader working class and civil society representation, thus
flouting the very Broadcasting Act it is supposedly serving under."
(Note: Cosatu and the SACP are formally members of the ANC ruling
coalition, and these organizations favored Zuma over Mbeki in
Polokwane. End Note)

16. (SBU) THE CURRENT DISPUTE: The two figures at the center of the
current SABC storm are SABC CEO Dali Mpofu and Managing Director of
news and current affairs Snuki Zikalala. Mpofu is viewed as a
once-strong Mbeki supporter who, since Polokwane, has been leaning
towards Zuma. Zikalala - called a henchman, hitman, and bagman by
his many enemies -- is painted by insiders who worked with him as a
heartless bully and manipulator whose prime interest is power and
intimidating the journalists and staff who work at the SABC. He is
perceived to have stayed faithful to Mbeki and is believed, by
former SABC staffers, to receive his orders from Presidential
Minister without portfolio Essop Pahad.

17. (SBU) The SABC Board in general, and especially CEO Mpofu, have
been in the line of fire since the end of February 2008, when the
SABC Board testified in front of the Parliamentary Committee on
Communications, which had been reshuffled after the Zuma victory.
The MPs grilled them over the fact that the Polokwane victory speech
of ANC President Jacob Zuma was "not transmitted properly." SABC
CEO Dali Mpofu replied that technical glitches were to blame.

18. (SBU) On April 29, the Parliamentary Committee on Communications
held another meeting with SABC executives (Chairwoman Khanysiwe
Mkhonza; CEO Mpofu; Chief Financial Officer Robin Nicholson; Acting
Operations Officer Charlotte Mampane and two other board members) to
discuss the future strategy of the corporation. The ANC members of
the portfolio committee abruptly stopped the session and insisted
that all 12 Board members appear in person the next day. On
Wednesday, April 30, the ANC MPs in Parliament, at the behest of the
Communications Committee, passed a vote of "no confidence" in the
corporation's entire management board. However, the motion was not
legally binding because, according to the Broadcasting Act, members
of the Board can only be removed by the "appointing authority" --
the President -- after consultation with the Board and the National

19. (SBU) SABC CEO Mpofu has also been under fire from the pro-Mbeki
Chairman of the Board, Ms. Khanyisiwe Mkhonza. Mkhonza wrote a
memorandum to Mpofu accusing him of defying the Board's directives
and failing to prepare the organization to cover the 2010 World Cup.
The memo was leaked to the media, which published portions of it,
including her criticisms that Mr. Mpofu's leadership has put the
SABC at "risk of reaching a crisis, operationally, financially, in
terms of governance." Mkhonza also raised concerns about an alleged
R300 million ($40 million) deficit in the SABC budget and the loss
of the exclusive broadcast rights for the highly popular and
lucrative Premier Soccer League. Other accusations include the
failure to act against Managing Director of news and current affairs
Snuki Zikalala over the "blacklist" scandal in 2006 in which
Zikalala is accused of creating a blacklist of commentators banned
from being shown on the SABC. Mpofu denies having received the
memorandum but called the document "defamatory" and suggested that
it had been leaked on instruction from a "member of the cabinet."
Qit had been leaked on instruction from a "member of the cabinet."

20. (SBU) On May 6, Mpofu fired Zikalala, accusing him of giving
another "confidential document" to ANC Treasurer General Matthew
Phosa. The document in question relates to the firing of a senior
employee at the Bloemfontein SABC office. Mpofu had instructed
Zikalala to re-employ the person but Zikalala refused. Mpofu
accused Zikalala of misconduct for leaking a classified and
confidential internal document. The same day, the SABC Board
suspended Mpofu with full pay for the reasons cited in Chairperson
Mkhonza's memo (para 19). Mpofu took his dismissal to court, and was
ordered reinstated in his job by Johannesburg High Court Judge Moroa
Tsoka on May 19. The Judge ruled that the Board meeting at which
Mpofu was suspended "had not been properly constituted." Although
the SABC articles of association state that the SABC board comprised
12 non-executive directors and three executive directors, the
Chairperson of the Board, Ms Kanyisiwe Mkhonza, had not invited
executive members to the meeting. Judge Tsoka said; "It is
disingenuous to refer to the meeting of 6 May as that of directors.
Not all the directors were invited. I declare that the meeting of 6
May is unlawful." The Judge further ordered the SABC and Ms Mkhonza
to pay Mopfu's legal costs.

21. (SBU) Mpofu has been back in his office ever since and stated
that he wants to "extend a hand of friendship" to the Board.
However, the Board considers Mpofu still suspended, and in the
meantime it has lodged an appeal to dispute Judge Tsoka's ruling.
The Board wants the appeal to be heard either by a full bench of the

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Johannesburg High Court or the Supreme Court of Appeals. They are
seeking to appeal against "the whole of the judgment and order of
May 19." The submissions include that Judge Tsoka erred in

-- That the relief sought by Mpofu constituted an urgent
-- That the board meeting was not lawfully constituted; and
-- That the SABC Board Chairperson's conduct fell short of standards
required of an independent to act without fear or favor and deserved
punitive costs, and that the neglect of the chairman to provide the
applicant with a copy of memo impugned the integrity of the Board

22. (SBU) WHERE WE ARE NOW: May 30 brought more embarrassing
revelations about the inner workings of the SABC and its disarray.
Media reported that SABC senior staff have called for a commission
of inquiry "to sort out the mess at the public broadcaster." A
four-page memorandum, supposedly compiled by those with line
management responsibilities, accuses the SABC Board of interfering
with the SABC's "executive management team" and of "flagrantly
disregarding the principles of corporate governance." The memo has
reportedly been sent to ANC headquarters, Parliament and other

23. (SBU) COMMENT: Although the SABC's current situation is
universally characterized as a "factional political battle" between
pro-Mbeki and pro-Zuma ANC supporters, the sad sub-text of all this
is the widely-held belief inside the ANC that to the victor belongs
the spoils--i.e., the Zuma faction won so it should have been able
to appoint, or at least have input, into the composition of the SABC
board. The internal problems of the SABC go back many years - the
difference in the current situation is that from gossip and
innuendo, often from fired or former employees, the battle and
criticism is public and often from "official" sources. Veteran South
African journalist and commentator Alistair Sparks noted in the May
14 Business Day newspaper, "It is the election system that is the
root cause of the SABC's chronic malaise.... It must be removed from
the political arena, where the ruling party will always dominate,
and placed in the hands of an independent commission."

24. (SBU) As all groups involved (the SABC Board, SABC top
management and the Parliamentary committee) are composed of ANC
members on one or the other side of the leadership struggle, the
current situation is unlikely to resolve itself before the March
2009 elections. Given the nature of ANC politics and the apparent
lack of broad public interest and support for major changes in the
public broadcaster, real change is unlikely in the foreseeable
future. END COMMENT.


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