An Open Letter to the new SABC Board

“You have to invest in that local content. While on the drawing board, the SABC should come up with ways to raise money for the development of the content they want to serve to the public. Otherwise you keep hearing the same thing…For example, in a nation of more than 50 million people, we don’t even have 50 decent theatres or halls for people to go and enjoy music. Where do you go as a South African when you want to watch a live band play? Also, where do you take your visitors from overseas to watch a South African band play indigenous music? We need to be serious about the basics before we implement quotas that are not well researched.” ( )

Dear new SABC Board,

You’ll notice that once more, the late Ray Phiri provides the epigraph to this blog. His recent death reminds us just how woke (before that term was even invented) he was: he understood music, politics – and the way the industry worked. In mid-May this year he told the Huffpost that the 90% local quota had been bound to fail. Unlike many of his peers, he understood precisely why: no planning, no research, no investment in development, no understanding of the music ecosystem.

Now you have gone back to the drawing board. You’ve said you plan to revisit the process by which the revised 2016 ICASA editorial policies were drawn up, after complaints and a finding that there was inadequate advance public participation.

There’s a massive irony in all this. One of the 2016 ICASA findings was that there needed to be a significant increase in local content on the public broadcaster. As I noted during the earlier Hlaudi-led controversy:

Motsoeneng: the song is ended but the legacy lingers on

“… in the current ICASA local content review document, published in March this year ( ), the SABC is quoted as supporting an upgrade to a 35% quota for commercial radio and objecting to a 70% quota for public radio, proposing 60% and recommending ‘that this quota be implemented in stages as this will ensure that the audiences do not experience a sudden change in their experience of the radio station. SABC is of the view that increases of the local music quota should be based on music research with the public thereby ensuring that radio stations respond to listener needs. The SABC was of the view that 70% is high and will lead to loss of audiences. This proposed quota will hinder the growth of the public broadcaster.’” ( )

So, even without additional public consultation, everybody was aware that local content needed to grow but that it wasn’t going to be easy. It’s a pity the debate didn’t remain about the process and the figure; unfortunately, it was pre-empted by an act of ill-considered, dictatorial, political grandstanding.

I spoke at one point to somebody involved with musicians’ lobbying of SABC. Yes, he conceded, their initial demand had been for 90%: “But that was a negotiating position. We didn’t realise we were negotiating with idiots.”

It would be truly tragic if the new consultation process derails or moves backwards from that terrain of 60%-70% local content. There is easily enough fresh, original SA music around to more than meet that figure, and still leave room to contextualise it with what’s happening in the rest of the music world. Because exposing and discussing music from elsewhere forms part of your mandate to inform and educate, too.

All those arguments have been dealt with in detail in my earlier blogs on the subject ( ; ; ). Let’s now change focus to consider those music-industry ecosystem issues so intelligently raised by the late Ray Phiri.

First, development. Most broadcasters run some kind of talent contest, and hold this up as a development activity. It isn’t. At best, it provides a showcase opportunity, and some artists have leveraged this to significant career advantage. But development is a process, not a series of events, however glitzy. It demands investment in the continuity of music education at every level, in every genre, and at every point on the music value-chain.

Some of this requires considered partnerships between a public broadcaster serious about local music development, and policy-makers in DBE, DHE and DAC. You cannot do it alone, and your relationship with government should mean more than simply asking for money.

But it also includes SABC’s in-house development of DJs and producers, so that it’s not only a few, dedicated experts who know what good new music already exists. One of the most shameful aspects of 90% implementation was the continual, shoddy, re-treading of old (and often bad) music. And music broadcasting does not only involve playing tracks. How about more new music documentaries too? All this means more investment in staff consultation (to tap the experts you already have) and training (to grow more).

Second, the relationship with live music. It is unarguable that a live circuit, with opportunities for performers to grow from small to larger stages, is an essential element of music development. Creating live venues is not your responsibility at SABC. That rests with local government, as discussed in the recent ConcertsSA report ( But, again, local music broadcasting is not merely about playing tracks. News features could discuss related issues and events – they are no less ‘newsy’ than any other economics and business topics. Note also the words ‘features’ and ‘discuss’. Your heavy reliance under Hlaudi on talking-head apparatchik commentators and media releases, rather than exploratory news features, has to end in the area of cultural coverage as in every other area. Why did I need to watch AlJazeera last week to see a news report (not just a performance in a pop show) on the phenomenon of gqom ( )? Why has the your SABC not told me about the current achievements of vocalist Vuyo Sotashe who, after his 2011 SAMRO Scholarship, went on to be second runner-up in the prestigious Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition, and has just wowed London audiences in This Joint is Jumpin’?

Vuyo Sotashe (2nd left) in This Joint is Jumpin’

Yes, more knowledgeable reporting costs more money. Fewer, smaller, pay rises at the very top, and better accountability over how money is spent might make more available, while more attractive programming might draw some of your fleeing advertisers and their revenue back.

Third, the meaning of ‘local’. Another shameful aspect of 90% implementation was the near-disappearance of African-continental music from general music shows. That must end. Not only is it bad politics, but it reduces the prospects of cross-continental music collaborations which can grow the industry and employment. Additionally, ‘local’ is not only a label for popular, traditional and jazz musics: as one example, the massive prestige that Paul Hanmer is accumulating as a classical composer in Europe has received no attention from your SABC; South African New Music is rarely broadcast or covered in features.

The myth on which Hlaudi’s 90% local fiat was founded is that broadcasters are gatekeepers, who can control what an audience thinks by limiting what they can see, hear and learn. The digital world means this is no longer so (and it never fully worked: even in Cold War Eastern Europe people took huge risks with clandestine radios to listen to the US jazz played by Willis Conover). The latest figures suggest that 1 in every 2 South Africans can now access the digital realm. They don’t have to watch or listen to your music choices. So what you need to do, in terms of music programming, is to entice more people to want to listen.

Oh, and by the way, to avoid disappointing – again – all those still-impoverished South African musicians who believed 90% local meant their royalties income would rise, you really need to ensure the efficiency of those administrative systems by which airplay is recorded and reported, and the speed of those systems by which artists are paid. For all his hot air, Hlaudi did neither.

But Hlaudi and his minions are gone. You do have the chance to make changes. And literally millions of us who believe in a national (not State) broadcaster living up to its mandate to inform, educate and entertain, will back you wholeheartedly if you do.



Send your views to the SABC by 31 August 2017. Current SABC editorial policies can be reviewed at Written submissions can be emailed to posted to SABC Private Bag X1, Aucklandpark, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2006; or call 011 714 9111 or 011 7149797, or fax 011 714 4508.

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