South Africa’s national public broadcaster, SABC, has expanded its services to ensure that the public remain informed, educated and entertained during the nationwide lockdown.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, SABC’s News and Current Affairs services were immediately made available on free-to-air television channels in it’s commitment to increase public awareness about the novel coronavirus and provide fact-checked and reliable information. This includes its regional and English language radio stations.

The public broadcaster has also partnered with the Department of Basic Education to launch ‘COVID 19 Learner Support’, a multimedia learning initiative aimed at preventing further disruptions to students’ education while schools remain shut. TV and radio schedules were released and began on 9 April with an accompanying YouTube channel.

The SABC has also partnered with other broadcasters in the country to help combat gender-based violence (GBV) during the lockdown. ‘Turn down your radio’ is a joint initiative with the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) to help support victims of abuse and raise awareness of GBV at a time when domestic violence reports are increasing at an alarming rate. SABC Radio is encouraging its listeners to “turn down the volume of their radios.”

And while many major sporting and cultural events are no longer taking place due to the spread of Covid-19, SABC assures that some of the nation’s favourite pre-recorded dramas will still be broadcast albeit some productions have ceased operations for the foreseeable.

These are part of the wider measures laid out last month by SABC to maintain “business continuity, as our services are critical to the South African public”, while also ensuring the safety of its employees and service providers, said SABC Group Chief Executive Officer, Madoda Mxakwe.


The public broadcaster’s management, however, did come under some scrutiny when staff members believed that they were being put “at risk of exposure to the coronavirus by concealing information about a staff member who had been exposed to the pandemic.” These claims were rejected by the SABC Board, who reassured employees and the public that the public broadcaster was adhering to its wider safety measures. Its Kimberly office in the Northern Cape, where one Covid-19 positive employee was working, has been temporarily closed.

The public broadcaster was also criticised by a political alliance, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s party, the African National Congress, who raised issues about SABC’s content during the lockdown. They wrote to President Ramaphosa suggesting that more resources and news information from SABC was needed to stop the spread of the pandemic.

SABC Spokesperson, Mmoni Seapolelo, defended its programming output, saying: “Consistently, SABC News journalists are deployed across the country to deliver the essential service of informing the public about all developments regarding the pandemic.

“As the SABC, we welcome engagement with and feedback from our stakeholders, and we would like to reiterate our unwavering commitment to providing citizens with valuable and factual news and information during this period.”

Media freedom concerns

Yet, changes to SABC’s programming, production and work schedules are taking place amidst a backdrop of growing media freedom concerns in the country.

The Public Media Alliance recently highlighted concerns about the South African government’s response to Covid-19 in its Global Call Out, when authorities made it a criminal offence to spread disinformation about Covid-19 or the government’s response to the pandemic.

Although South Africa has maintained its position at 31st in RSF’s 2020 Press Freedom Index, measures such as criminalising the spread of so-called “fake news”, coupled with newly introduced “tech monitoring“, may have unwelcome repercussions for the editorial independence and capacity of the public broadcaster and other news media to serve the public with timely and relevant information.

In other news:
  • SABC appointed Merlin Naicker as the new Group Executive of SABC TV.
  • An SABC news crew was “attacked by community members” of a rural village while investigating how much Covid-19 information and government guidance has been filtered down to rural areas of South Africa.

Header image: SABC Western Cape. Credit: Richard Tanswell/Creative Commons