A simple plan to get South Africans to start paying their TV licences

Civil society group Outa has called for the SABC’s TV licence system to be overhauled, which it believes will address the national broadcaster’s funding issues.

The proposal, submitted to the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies as part of a submission on the SABC bill, suggests that the television licence is effectively a tax and should simply be treated as such.

Under current regulations, the TV licence fee is set by the minister of communications. However, Outa proposes that the licence fee be included as a tax through a money bill that only the finance minister introduce.

“Outa is of the opinion that television licence fees amount to a tax or revenue in terms of section 77 of the Constitution. The mere fact that a person has to pay a fee for being in possession of a television set – whether it is used or not – amounts to a tax or levy.

“One might still argue that where the set is used, there is a benefit that accrues to the possessor, but paying for mere possession is akin to paying duty tax,” it said.

Other proposed changes 

Television licence fees are meant solely to fund the SABC’s public broadcasting services, not the commercial services.

However, Outa has raised concerns that the SABC does not separate these revenue and spending streams in annual finances, as legally required.

The group also suggested considering a regular annual state grant for the SABC’s public broadcasting services.

“This would avoid the irregular and disastrous last-minute bailouts but provide a more stable revenue stream, particularly for the public broadcasting sector,” it said. “This could be seen as a grant in the furtherance of democracy. Outa suggests cutting funding to wasteful programmes and diverting some of this to the SABC.”

Collection problems 

The SABC expects to face continued issues around TV licence collections for the near future, as South Africans refuse to pay their fees.

In an August presentation, the national broadcaster said that the TV Licence cash revenue collected during Q4 20/21 was R200.7 million against a budget of R293.7 million – resulting in a R92.9 million (32%) shortfall against budget.

The SABC’s Q4 results cover the period between 1 January and 31 March 2021.

“In comparison to Q3 (R278.3 million), there was a decrease of R77.6 million (27.9%) in Q4,” it said. “There was, however, a year-on-year increase of R40.8 million (25.5%) in TV Licence revenue, a commendable improvement considering the economic constraints.”

The financial data shows that the SABC failed to meet almost all of its licence targets across the board:

  • Renewals’ revenue stream for the quarter was below budget by R65.8 million (YTD: R14 million);
  • New licences were below budget by R13.7 million (YTD: R1.3 million);
  • Debt collection was R13.4 million below the budget (YTD: above budget by R4.2 million).

New legislation 

While TV licence collections have remained a sticking point for several years, the communications department is expected to strengthen regulations through the South African Broadcasting Corporation Bill, which is currently open for public comment.

The bill proposes keeping the current TV licensing scheme and improving compliance through harsher penalties rather than introducing additional taxes and levies.

It also proposes allowing the SABC to appoint inspectors who are empowered to approach households to check the validity of TV licences.

The SABC has previously mooted an annual household levy of R265 on the eight million households currently in its TV licence billing system.

It has also considered making TV licences a requirement for smartphones, tablets and other devices under a revised definition of ‘televisions’.

While the bill favours the TV licence over the household levy, it does not prescribe how the broadcaster will collect the TV licence.

Instead, it states that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa will be responsible for making TV licences regulations in consultation with the SABC and the communications minister.

It may make regulations on the following:

  • The television licence fee, payable for any television licence issued, includes payment and collection, penalties, and ancillary costs.
  • The period of validity of a television licence.
  • The manner of determining fees of a television licence.
  • The purpose for which and the place where you may use a television set.
  • Different categories of television licences which any user of a television set may be required to possess.
  • The duty to keep, maintain and furnish records and information, including a duty to supply the SABC with such records and information as may be prescribed.
  • Exemptions from the obligation to have a TV licence.
  • The transferability of a television licence.

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A simple plan to get South Africans to start paying their TV licences