Faced with an unenviable choice last month – either cough up to service its eight-figure municipality account, or settle the salary bill, the SABC took the high road and paid its staff.
And while the lights are still on in Auckland Park, for now, anyway, the broadcaster is desperately hoping a R3.2bn government guarantee will entice commercial banks to provide the loans it needs to stay afloat.
“I’m not sure how we are going to pay for salaries come end of June,” SABC board chair Bongumusa Makhathini told the Sunday Times this week. “We have also not maintained any of our infrastructure and a communication blackout is imminent. We anticipated Day Zero in March, but we have managed to stay on air until now.” The SABC will meet with the municipality this week to discuss its debt.
The financial position of the SABC has been worsening over the last nine months and the public broadcaster is at the mercy of its creditors as it awaits a decision on its application for a R3.2bn financial support from the government.
This was revealed by company Chief Financial Officer, Yolandi van Biljon, in a television interview with the broadcaster following reports that it was facing a prospect of a blackout if it fails to meet its financial obligations.
Van Biljon said the SABC has a debt of over R1bn due to creditors, and has to play a fine balancing act between its various priorities.
“It’s been like that for the last eight to nine months,” she said.
Van Biljon stated that paying staff salaries remained one of the key priorities, adding that the company’s ability to meet its financial needs heavily depended on strategic partners who are owed “large sums of money.”
According to Van Biljon, the broadcaster owes among other companies a total of R317m to SuperSport and R208m to Sentech, which provides distribution networks.
“If SuperSport or Sentech say they are unable to carry us further, then the salaries will be at risk. It is indeed crunch time, but we are doing everything we can to protect the payroll,” said Van Biljon.
“We are planning to pay salaries but it’s extremely uncertain. It’s a day-to-day monitoring situation.”
The SABC is one of a number of state-owned companies in dire need of financing, with Eskom straining in a debt pile of over R400bn, and South African Airways also facing a debt crisis.
It’s not the first time that the dire financial situation of the SABC has come into the public domain. In November, SABC board member Mathatha Tsedu warned the Parliament’s portfolio committee on communications that the company’s Day Zero could arrive soon as the first quarter of next year.
“I think Day Zero can happen tomorrow, if any of the big parties that we owe say they are unable to support us,” said Van Biljon.
An SABC blackout could affect millions of radio listeners and television viewers, particularly those who depend on the public broadcaster for news.