James Aguma 

Johannesburg - South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) acting chief executive James Aguma has admitted the public broadcaster is in the midst of a financial crisis, blaming gross political interference for the untenable situation.

However, he said that, contrary to media reports, it would still be able to pay about R200 million in staff salaries at the end of the month.

In an exclusive interview with The Star on Tuesday, Aguma painted a grim picture of a public broadcaster that had been hit hard by dwindling advertising revenue due to a slump in the global economy and rising costs of running the news division, which employs about 1000 people.

“All 3800 employees and 1500 freelancers will get their salaries, there’s no doubt about that. But the SABC revenue is under pressure. The advertising and sponsorship revenue is down due to a downturn in the global economy,” Aguma said.

Its strategic partners were also pulling out as they did not want their contracts “to come under undue scrutiny.

“They say, ‘don’t bring your politics’. But we will recover.”

Commercial sources, including multinational companies, were effectively funding the SABC and accounted for about 85 percent or R5 billion of the broadcaster’s R7 billion total revenue.

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Aguma said it received only 2 percent or about R165 million in government grants a year, while TV licences accounted for 1 percent.

“A 1 percent drop in advertising equals R50 million in cash. Over the years, advertising revenue had dropped by 3 percent.

“It’s across the board, it’s not just the SABC that has been affected, it’s other companies as well.”

Aguma blamed political interference for the challenges at the broadcaster, saying: “Look, I’m not saying the SABC is perfect, but the root cause of the problem is politics. It’s very hard to run a commercial business in a highly politicised environment. For me, that’s how I see it.

“All the previous boards have collapsed because of politics because all the people come with a mandate to do this or do that.

“But that’s not what our funders are interested in, and a lot of criticism levelled at the SABC is unwarranted because no one is asking for context.”

In January, former SABC board chairperson Ellen Tshabalala told the ad hoc committee looking at the challenges within the broadcaster that there was gross political interference at the corporation.

She identified the ANC, SACP and DA as the political parties whose members reportedly sought to interfere in the SABC’s business.

Aguma said he had been on the receiving end of politicians’ anger because of his stance on how the broadcaster should be run.

“Politicians think I don’t respect them but I have a duty to my employees. I can’t allow politics to put their lives at risk.”

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He then compared the SABC’s funding mechanism with that of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). According to last year’s annual report, which The Star has seen, the ABC’s source of revenue was A$120 million (R1.17 billion), while revenue from the Australian government amounted to A$1.06 billion.

In contrast, the SABC’s own source of revenue was R7.4 billion while government grants amounted to R167 million.

“We can’t have a public broadcaster and call it as such but don’t fund it. Put your money where your mouth is. Look at the ABC,” said Aguma, looking frustrated.

It had cost the SABC about R870 million to run its news division last year, and covering the local government elections had set the broadcaster back by R320 million, he said, commending former chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng for raising R20 million towards that.

DA communications spokesperson Phumzile van Damme lashed out at Aguma for not giving “an honest appraisal of what’s happening at the SABC”.

“We don’t feel he’s very honest. We are going to ensure that President Jacob Zuma appoints the interim board so that it can start cleaning up the mess.”