Minister for Communications and Digital Technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has ordered the SABC board to resolve issues over job cuts, according to a report by The Sunday Times.

In a letter seen by the publication, Ndabeni-Abrahams directed SABC board members to return to negotiations with labour unions and attempt to end the ongoing dispute over lay-offs at the public broadcaster.

She reportedly advised that the board “upskill, reskill, and train affected staff for redeployment” and make COVID-19 TERS benefits available to those who have been retrenched.

A number of SABC executives may perceive Ndabeni-Abrahams’s letter as interference with the operations of the public broadcaster (an activity prohibited by The Broadcasting Act), while others may see the move as an attempted undermining of the labour court’s decision.

The minister’s spokesperson told The Sunday Times this is not the case, however, adding that Ndabeni-Abrahams’s communication with the SABC and labour unions was based on a desire to avoid a blackout at the public broadcaster.

A blackout at the SABC would comprise the complete lack of content being broadcast over its various channels due to a protest by vital employees.

This outcome has been threatened by unions opposed to the SABC’s planned job cuts on multiple occasions.

Last year, the SABC won a court case brought by broadcast union Bemawu in an attempt to halt the retrenchments at the public broadcaster, which had been reduced from 600 to 303.

The union argued that the Section 189 process implemented by the SABC was invalid, but the court found that the public broadcaster had provided the union with ample time and space to address its concerns throughout the process.

Retrenchment process

The recent strike action against the SABC follows a statement from the public broadcaster that it had concluded its Section 189 process after an extensive six-month consultation process.

“This Section 189 process exceeded the minimum legislative requirements of 60 days and 4 sessions and was finalised on 6 November 2020,” the SABC said.

On 23 November 2020, the SABC Board suspended the execution of the process by 30-days to enable management to further engage directly with employees on the proposed structures.

The extended consultation process ended on 31 December 2020.

At this point, the number of employees set to be retrenched as part of the process was further to 303, just over half of the originally projected 600.

The final numbers of redundancies are dependent on the acceptance of the proposed alternatives like Voluntary Severance Packages (VSPs) and Early Retirement.

Blackout threats

Disputes between unions and the public broadcaster over the retrenchments have continued to rage over the past month, with organisations representing the retrenched employees threatening to orchestrate blackouts at the SABC.

Aubrey Tshabalala, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), previously said a go-slow organised on 21 January had resulted in a few operational glitches at the broadcaster.

Tshabalala claimed that the strike would lead to a blackout at the SABC, which would have seen it unable to broadcast content or to only broadcast pre-recorded clips.

“They can play old recordings, but there will be no fresh news or fresh content,” he said.

This was not the case, however, and the SABC’s contingency plans for continuing to operate under these conditions proved to be sufficient to continue broadcasting as normal.

The SABC has said it is unperturbed by the strike action as “the drive to cut its wage bill can withstand any legal scrutiny”.

SABC spokesperson Mmoni Seapolelo said the SABC has contingency plans in place to ensure the continuous running of SABC services during a strike.