Radio broadcasting began in South Africa in 1923, under the auspices of South African Railways, before three radio services were licensed, the Association of Scientific and Technical Societies (AS&TS) in Johannesburg, the Cape Peninsular Publicity Association in Cape Town and the Durban Corporation, which began broadcasting in 1924.
These were then merged into the African Broadcasting Company in 1927, owned by I W Schlesinger, a wealthy businessman, but on August 1, 1936, these were sold to the SABC, established that year through an Act of Parliament. The SABC took over the African Broadcasting Company's staff and assets. It maintained a state monopoly on radio until the launch of Radio 702 in 1980. Although the subscription-funded television service M-Net was launched in 1986, the SABC had a monopoly on free-to-air television until the launch of e.tv in 1998.
During National Party rule from 1948 onwards, it came under increasing criticism and accusations of being biased towards the then ruling party. At one time most of its senior management were members of the Broederbond, the Afrikaner secret society and later drawn from institutions like Stellenbosch University.
The SABC was a radio service until the introduction of television in 1976. There were three main SABC radio stations: the English Service (later known as Radio South Africa), the Afrikaans Service (later known as Radio Suid-Afrika and Afrikaans Stereo) and the commercial station, Springbok Radio.
Programmes on the English and Afrikaans services mainly consisted of the news, radio plays, such as The Forsyte Saga, Story of an African Farm, The Summons written and produced in South Africa, serious talk shows, BBC radio shows, children's programming, such as Sound Box, light music broadcasts featuring South African talent, such as orchestras, arrangers, musicians and singers. Accomplished musicians such as pianist and composer, Charles Segal were featured on all three stations on a regular basis in shows like Piano Playtime. Accordionist Nico Carstens was a regular on the Afrikaans programmes.
On 4 February 1996, two years after the ANC came to power, the SABC reorganised its three TV channels, so as to be more representative of different language groups. This resulted in the downgrading of Afrikaans' status by reducing its airtime from 50% to 15%, a move that alienated many Afrikaans speakers.
The SABC has since been accused of favouring the ruling ANC political party, mostly in the area of news broadcasting. It remains the dominant player in the country's broadcast media.
Criticism of the public broadcaster intensified around 2003–2005, when it was accused of a wide range of shortcomings including self-censorship, lack of objectivity and selective news coverage.
Following its establishment in 1936, the SABC established services in what were then the country's official languages, English and Afrikaans, with the Afrikaans service being established in 1937. Broadcasts in languages such as Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho and Tswana followed in 1940.
Springbok Radio, the SABC's first commercial radio service, started broadcasting on 1 May 1950. Bilingual in English and Afrikaans, it broadcast from the Johannesburg Centre for 113 and a half hours a week. The service proved to be so popular with advertisers that at the time of its launch, commercial time had been booked well in advance.
The station featured a wide variety of programming, such as morning talk and news, game shows, soap operas like Basis Bravo, children's programming, music request programmes, top-ten music, talent shows and other musical entertainment. One popular Saturday noontime comedy show was Telefun Time, whose hosts would phone various people and conjure up situation comedy, a similar brand of humour to the films of Leon Schuster.
By 1985, Springbok Radio was operating at a heavy loss. After losing many listeners with the handing over of its shortwave frequencies to Radio 5 and facing competition from television, it ceased broadcasting on 31 December 1985.
The News Service was established in June 1950, replacing the programmes of the BBC. Although this was because the BBC broadcasts were seen as giving a British viewpoint of current affairs, there were also concerns that the SABC service would become overly pro-government, or "Our Master's Voice". By 1968, it had over 100 full-time reporters in the main cities and local correspondents all over the country, with overseas news provided by Reuters, AFP, AP and UPI. There was a News Film Unit which, prior to television in 1976, produced films for news agencies and television organisations.
The SABC Symphony Orchestra has its origins in its three studio ensembles in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town and the Municipal Orchestra of the Johannesburg City Council. When the SABC centralised its broadcasting in Johannesburg, the future of the three ensembles were in doubt but at the same time, the Municipal Orchestra of the Johannesburg City Council had been disbanded. The SABC was able to form an orchestra of 80 musicians from these groupings in 1954, and while its main base was at the Johannesburg City Hall, it would tour the country. The orchestra would be led for many years by the SABC's head of music, Anton Hartman but had other conductors such as Franceco Mander and Edgar Cree. There were also international composers such as Igor Stravinsky. The SABC Junior Orchestra was also created and began in February 1966 under Walter Mony.
Regional commercial FM music stations were started in the 1960s.
Following the establishment of a republic and withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 1961, the Afrikaners' goal was to promote their culture and so, at first, the SABC's choice of popular music reflected the National Party government's initial conservatism, especially on the Afrikaans channel, with musicians such as Nico Carstens. However Carstens was also ostracised by the SABC, as his music was influenced by the Coloured and Malay communities of Cape Town.
Eventually, musicians broke through the barrier, when the young, English-speaking Jewish musician and composer, Charles Segal collaborated with the older Afrikaans lyric-writer, Anton Dewaal, to write songs. Segal's songs like "Die Ou Kalahari" became highly popular with the Afrikaans-speaking public. However, there was tight censorship over all broadcasts, particularly of pop music, with, for example, the music of The Beatles being banned by the SABC between 1966 and March 1971.
In 1966 the SABC established an external service, known as Radio RSA, which broadcast in English, Swahili, French, Portuguese, Dutch and German. In 1969 the SABC held a national contest to find theme music for the service. This contest was won by the popular South African pianist and composer, Charles Segal and co-writer, Dorothy Arenson. Their composition, "Carousel" remained the theme song for Radio RSA until 1992, when it was replaced by Channel Africa.
In 1996 the SABC carried out a significant restructuring of their services. The main English-language radio service became SAfm. The new service, after some initial faltering, soon developed a respectable listenership and was regarded as a flagship for the new democracy. However, government interference in the state broadcaster in 2003 saw further changes to SAfm which reversed the growth and put it in rapid decline once more. Today it attracts only 0.6% of the total population to its broadcasts. The main Afrikaans radio service was renamed Radio Sonder Grense (literally 'Radio Without Borders') in 1995 and has enjoyed greater success with the transition.
By contrast, SABC Radio's competitors, like Primedia-owned Radio 702, Cape Talk and 94.7 Highveld Stereo have grown steadily in audience and revenue, while other stations such as the black-owned and focused YFM and Kaya FM have also attracted black audiences.
As of 12 May 2016, the SABC has implemented a policy to promote local content, 90% of all music played on the broadcaster's 18 radio stations will be sourced from local artists with a focus on Kwaito, Jazz, Reggae and Gospel genres.
In 1975, after years of controversy over the introduction of television, the SABC was finally allowed to introduce a colour TV service, which began experimental broadcasts in the main cities on 5 May 1975, before the service went nationwide on 6 January 1976. Initially, the TV service was funded entirely through a licence fee, as in the UK, but advertising began in 1978. The SABC (both Television and Radio) is still partly funded by the licence fee (currently R250 per annum).
The service initially broadcast only in English and Afrikaans, with an emphasis on religious programming on Sundays. A local soap opera, The Villagers, set on a gold mine, was well received while other local productions like The Dingleys were panned as amateurish.
The majority of acquired programming on South African television came from the United States, although owing to their opposition to apartheid, some production companies stopped selling programmes to the country. The British actors' union Equity had already started a boycott of programme sales to South Africa, which was not lifted until 1993. However, the Thames Television police drama series The Sweeney and Van der Valk, were briefly shown on SABC TV, as was the original version of Thunderbirds.
Many imported programmes were dubbed in Afrikaans, but in July 1986, in order to accommodate English speakers, the SABC began to simulcast the original soundtrack of series on an FM radio service called Radio 2000, allowing them to watch them in the original language.
SABC TV also produced lavish musical shows featuring the most popular South African composers, solo musicians, bands and orchestras. For example, the pianist and composer, Charles Segal, was given a half-hour special show: The Music of Charles Segal, where a selection of his music was performed by various local artists, such as Zane Adams, SABC Orchestra and others. However, it also broadcast pop music series like Pop Shop, which consisted of overseas and local music, and Double Track, which consisted entirely of local acts.
With a limited budget, early programming aimed at children tended to be quite innovative, and programmes such as the Afrikaans-language puppetshows Haas Das se Nuus Kas and Oscar in Asblikfontein are still fondly remembered by many.
On 1 January 1982, two services were introduced, TV2 broadcasting in Zulu and Xhosa and TV3 broadcasting in Sotho and Tswana, both aimed at a black urban audience. The main channel, now called TV1, was divided evenly between English and Afrikaans, as before. In 1985, a new service called TV4 was introduced, carrying sports and entertainment programming, using the channel shared by TV2 and TV3, which ended transmissions at 9:30 pm.
In 1992, TV2, TV3 and TV4 were combined into a new service called CCV (Contemporary Community Values). A third channel was introduced known as TSS, or TopSport Surplus, TopSport being the brand name for the SABC's sport coverage, but this was replaced by NNTV (National Network TV), an educational, non-commercial channel, in 1994.
In 1986, the SABC's monopoly on TV was challenged by the launch of a subscription-based service known as M-Net, which was backed by a consortium of newspaper publishers. This service was prohibited from broadcasting its own news and current affairs programmes, which were still the preserve of the SABC. The SABC's dominance was further eroded by the launch of the first 'free-to-air' private TV channel, e.tv. Satellite television expanded when M-Net's sister company, Multichoice, launched its digital satellite TV service (DStv) in 1995. SABC TV channels are broadcast via this satellite television, as well.
In 1996, the SABC reorganised its three TV channels with the aim of making them more representative of the various language groups. These new channels were called SABC 1, SABC 2 and SABC 3. The SABC also absorbed the Bop TV station, of the former Bophuthatswana bantustan.
SABC TV programmes in Afrikaans and other languages are now subtitled in English, but programmes in English are not usually subtitled in other languages, the perception being that all South Africans understand English. Previously, subtitling was confined to productions like operas and operettas. It was not used on TV1, on the assumption that most viewers understood both Afrikaans and English, nor on CCV, despite presenters using two or more different languages during a single programme.
In 2005, the SABC announced proposed the creation of two complementary regional television channels, SABC4 and SABC5, to emphasise indigenous languages. SABC4, based in Mafikeng, was to be broadcast in Tswana, Sesotho, Pedi, Tsonga, Venda, and Afrikaans, to the northern provinces of the country, while SABC5, based in Cape Town, was to broadcast in Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, and Swazi, as well as Afrikaans, to the southern provinces. Unlike other SABC TV services, SABC4 and SABC5 were not to be available via satellite. Apart from soundbites on news or current affairs programmes, no English-language programming would be shown on either channel. However, the plans fell through and in 2015, the SABC stated that it would launch two new channels, SABC News and SABC Encore.
In 2013, the SABC announced plans to launch a new news channel, SABC News, to be available on DStv, instead of waiting for the introduction of digital terrestrial television,
According to the SABC, the factors which are considered when deciding how much time a language gets on television are the following: how many home language speakers exist in the coverage area of a channel; the geographical spread of the language; the extent to which members of a language community are able to understand other languages; the extent of marginalisation of a language; the extent to which the language is understood by other South Africans; and whether there is available content that uses the language.
SABC TV has an audience of over 30 million. SABC1 reaches 89% of the public, SABC2 reaches 91% of the public, and SABC3 reaches 77% of the public, according to the broadcaster. The SABC has 18 radio stations, which have more than 25 million weekly listeners.
SABC television has also been widely available in neighbouring Lesotho and Swaziland, as well as Botswana, which did not have television services of its own until 1988. After complaints from rights holders in Botswana, SABC encrypted its TV channels, thereby cutting off viewers in the country.
Until 1979, the SABC operated broadcasting services in Namibia, which was then under South African rule, but in that year, these were transferred to the South West African Broadcasting Corporation (SWABC). However, the SWABC retained technical personnel from the SABC, and a number of its programmes were prepared at the SABC's studios in Johannesburg before being dispatched to Windhoek for transmission.
The SABC also helped the SWABC to establish a television service in 1981. This comprised a mix of programming in English, Afrikaans and German, 90 per cent of which came from or via the SABC. Programmes were shown locally a week after South Africa. The SWABC received SABC TV programming (which it recorded, edited and rebroadcast) first by using a microwave link, and later via an Intelsat satellite link. The SWABC became the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) after the country's independence in 1990.
However, Walvis Bay, an enclave of South Africa in Namibia until 1994, received the SABC's TV1 on a low-power repeater, which was broadcast live via Intelsat from 1986.
In 1998, the SABC began to broadcast two TV channels to the rest of Africa: SABC Africa, a news service, and Africa 2 Africa, entertainment programming from South Africa and other African countries, via DStv. In 2003, Africa 2 Africa was merged with SABC Africa to create a hybrid service, drawing programming from both sources. SABC Africa closed in August 2008 after the SABC's contract with DStv was not renewed. In 2007, the SABC launched a 24-hour international news channel, SABC News International, but closed in 2010.
The SABC has been accused of being a government and ruling party mouthpiece, particularly in the lead-up to the 2014 South African Elections, particularly after it refused to air the campaign adverts of various opposition parties, and again in 2015 when it censored the video feeds of the 2015 State of the Nation address that portrayed the ANC and President Jacob Zuma in a negative light. In 2015, communications minister Faith Muthambi reinforced the notion that the SABC was a state-owned company, and therefore, subject to control by the ministry and the ruling party.
In August 2005, the SABC came under heavy fire from independent media and the public for failing to broadcast footage in which deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was booed offstage by members of the ANC Youth League, who were showing support for the newly axed ex-deputy president, Jacob Zuma.
Rival broadcaster eTV publicly accused SABC of 'biased reporting' for failing to show the video footage of the humiliated deputy president. Snuki Zikalala, Head of News and ex-ANC spokesperson retorted that their cameraman had not been present at the meeting. This claim was later established to be false when eTV footage was released which showed an SABC cameraman filming the incident.
The SABC's government connections also came under scrutiny when, in April 2005, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was interviewed live by Zikalala, who is a former ANC political commissar. The interview was deemed by the public to have sidestepped 'critical issues', and to have avoided difficult questions regarding Mugabe's radical land-reform policies and human rights violations.
In May 2006, the SABC was accused of self-censorship when it decided not to air a documentary on South African president Thabo Mbeki, and in early June 2006, the news organisation requested that the producers (from Daylight Films) not speak about it. This was widely criticised by independent media groups. In response, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange issued an alert concerning the SABC's apparent trend toward self-censorship.
In June 2006, the International Federation of Journalists denounced the cancelling of the Thabo Mbeki documentary, citing "self-censorship" and "politically-influenced managers".
Also in June 2006, SAfm host John Perlman disclosed on air that the SABC had created a blacklist of commentators. A commission of inquiry was created by SABC CEO Dali Mpofu to investigate the allegations that individuals had been blacklisted at the behest of Zikalala. Perlman eventually resigned from SAfm, and the broadcaster came under heavy criticism from free media advocates.
Shortly before the ANC's 2012 elective conference in Mangaung, the board of the SABC handed control of news, television, radio and sport to COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng. The board's decision was interpreted by some at the SABC as a calculated attempt to ensure that an ANC faction close to President Jacob Zuma was given positive coverage. During a press conference held by the SABC on 6 December 2012, to explain why it had prevented three journalists from participating in a discussion on how the media would cover the ANC's elective conference in Manguang, Hlaudi Motsoeneng said that whenever the ANC is discussed on the SABC an ANC party representative must be present.
In April 2014, journalists were warned by SABC chairperson, Ellen Zandile Tshabalala, that their phones were being wiretapped by the NIA, and reminded them to be loyal to the ANC ruling party. When challenged on the matter, Tshabalala insisted that her comments had been taken out of context. The scandal erupted at the same time that the DA official opposition accused the SABC of censorship when they stopped airing a television advert that referred to the ongoing Nkandlagate scandal.
In February 2015, the SABC was accused of censoring video and audio feeds of the State of the Nation address in Parliament, after opposition party EFF was forcefully ejected by armed plain-clothes policemen after interrupting the President's speech. Footage of opposition party DA walking out in protest over the presence of the armed personnel was also censored. This was in addition to the presence of a signal-jamming device that prevented journalists and MP's from being able to use their mobile devices to post news online.
The SABC was criticised for banning footage that showed protests and demonstrations in the run-up to the 2016 local elections. In July 2016, eight SABC journalists challenged the broadcaster's decision to censor news items, and were dismissed from the organisation. A subsequent hearing at the Labour Court found the dismissals were unlawful and ordered the reinstatement of four of the full-time SABC employees.
In October 2016, the South African parliament began investigating corruption allegations against SABC and its Group Executive of Corporate Affairs - Hlaudi Motsoeneng. On December 12, the Western Cape High Court ruled that Motsoeneng be removed from office effective immediately.