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Like its Broederbond founders, MultiChoice is attempting to defend the indefensible over its exploitative contract with the SABC, writes Solly Mapaila.

Johannesburg - Like its Broederbond founders, MultiChoice is attempting to defend the indefensible over its exploitative contract in which it assumes control over much of the SABC’s news department and over the national broadcaster’s priceless national cultural legacy, its local content archive.

Its executive chairman, Nolo Letele, insists that anyone who disagrees with him is a victim of “a lie that has been repeated so often that it seems some people have come to believe it” (Sunday Independent, April 19). He also, bizarrely, suggests that the MultiChoice-SABC deal “is no secret”.

Both statements are less than honest and, as executive chairman, Letele must know it.

The version of the SABC-MultiChoice contract signed by Hlaudi Motsoeneng on July 3, 2013 is unambiguous: MultiChoice gets control over all material broadcast on the pay-TV channel made up of content drawn from the SABC’s entertainment archives. The SABC has announced that the channel is to be called Encore when it launches next month.

The contract states categorically that, once a production has appeared on Encore, the SABC may not use it again on its free-to-air channels or license it to any other broadcaster.

That can only be described as “control” being exercised by MultiChoice – particularly as reports from unhappy SABC staff members indicate that vast quantities of material are being moved from the Auckland Park SABC archives to MultiChoice’s Randburg headquarters so it can be digitised.

The SABC is not keeping copies in Auckland Park, so once it is in Randburg, the material will be lost to the public. It will be in the hands of a company that has demonstrated that all it cares about is profit maximisation – if necessary by taking from the working class and poor and selling (at inflated prices) to the rich.

The country is losing a priceless heritage, sold at bargain-basement prices, in terms of a contract that blatantly breaches the Broadcasting Act, the SABC’s enabling statute.

The Sunday Independent allowed Letele to repeat the standard MultiChoice response that its contract with the SABC “is not a secret… rather it is a standard commercial agreement for the supply of two television channels”. This is a graphic example of Lenin’s dictum that “a lie told often enough becomes the truth”.

The contract also introduces a form of TV apartheid in which all South African languages other than English are treated as second class and get allocated a 10th of the financial resources of English news.

This is manifestly in breach of the SABC’s own policies, which require that all languages be treated “equitably”.

It even gives MultiChoice some discretion over what can be defined as an “event of national interest” – and this is a company born in the dark days of apartheid, with the shadowy Broederbond as the midwife. For all we know, the same shadowy figures may continue to control it.

It also compels the SABC to support MultiChoice’s commercial drive to keep all competitors out of the South African pay-TV market and to maintain the monopoly established by Naspers – MultiChoice’s controlling shareholder – in the last decade of apartheid and maintained since with such aggression.

MultiChoice’s monopoly and its unhealthy influence over government policy and broadcast regulation are, incidentally, the reasons South Africans pay so much for subscription TV and are held to ransom by MultiChoice when it comes to watching all our favourite sports – football, rugby, cricket, boxing and so on.

Back to the statement that the SABC-MultiChoice agreement “is no secret”. Members of the SABC board – current and recently removed – may beg to differ. They did not see the contract until well after it was signed – making it illegal – and the first several of them saw of it was a copy leaked from within the organisation.

When disgraced former chairwoman Ellen Tshabalala told a closed meeting, convened by the then-minister of communications several months later, that the SABC opposed government policy (but supported MultiChoice’s position), the board had discussed it for the first time earlier the same day.

Neither the SABC nor MultiChoice has formally released the contract. If it is a “standard commercial agreement for the supply of two television channels” they could do so fairly easily, particularly as it deals with publicly owned assets in the form of the archive. If necessary, to protect their commercial interests, they could excise the payment figures referred to – although the payment terms have been in the public domain since August 2013, so there would be little point.

But in papers that are before the Competition Tribunal, MultiChoice maintains that the contract has been amended several times since it was signed and that the amendments are subject to commercial confidentiality requirements. Translated, that means MultiChoice and the SABC won’t let us see them. But Letele insists the contract “is no secret”.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that a judgment released by the Competition Tribunal on another Naspers subsidiary contains the chilling finding: “Has Media24 been transparent and honest about the locus of control of Novus? Unequivocally, no.” Presumably Letele, as executive chairman of another subsidiary, shares a corporate culture with his colleagues managing Media24 and Novus.

There is no doubt that the contract gives MultiChoice “control” over the SABC’s entertainment archives and that the contract has been and remains shrouded in secrecy.

Letele can deny it as much as he likes and may even have come to believe what he himself says. But the question must be asked: Who is telling the lie he refers to that “has been repeated so often that it seems some people have come to believe it”?

 

* Mapaila is second deputy general secretary of the SACP.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent