Total TV Licence disaster

9.2 million South Africans owe the SABC R44.2 billion in outstanding TV licence fees.

That shocking figure was revealed by Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Mondli Gungubele in a Parliamentary reply to EFF MP Sinawo Tambo on 26 June 2023.

Gungubele explained the amount owed to the public broadcaster included unpaid invoices and penalties levied for non-payment over several years.

He also said that at least 5.6 million TV licence accounts — about 61% of the total number — had been handed over to external debt collectors.

In the broadcaster’s latest available full annual results — for 2021/2022 — it made R815 million in revenue from TV licence fees.

That amount works out to just 1.8% of the total debt. Put differently, the SABC would have to collect 54 times that amount to make up for the entire debt — without accounting for additional fees due in the coming years.

The R44.2 billion is also over 10× the amount of money the SABC has received in bailouts over the last decade.

Gungubele reiterated that the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) has proposed replacing the television licence model with a household levy.

Regarding progress on this front, the Cabinet approved the South African Broadcasting Corporation Bill 2022, which provides for the household levy, on 29 November 2022.

It has been submitted to Parliament for processing.

“Pending the legislative changes, the DCDT will continuously engage with the SABC and Treasury to examine the options for the necessary reform and enhancement required of the current TV licence system,” Gungubele said.

The SABC had a database of 10.5 million registered TV licence holders as of March 2022.

Based on the TV licence payment evasion rate of 81.7% during that year, 8.6 million of these licence holders did not pay.

The fact that this number has increased to 9.2 million suggests that the evasion rate might have risen to as much as 87.6% during the latest financial year.

However, the number of registered TV licence holders may have increased, so the evasion rate could be lower.

Between 2021 and 2022, the number of SABC TV licence holders increased by about 200,000.

If a similar increase occurred in the latest financial year, the evasion rate could be around 86%.

The SABC is yet to publish its annual financial report. Last year, it was only tabled in October.

Why people are not paying — and what can be done

The defunct TV licence regime has not only hurt the SABC’s revenue but has also been heavily criticised by civic organisations and opposition parties.

Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse CEO Wayne Duvenage recently told MyBroadband he believed there were three major reasons why people refused to pay:

  • It is a grudge tax charged by a government institution providing a service many do not use.
  • Many TV Licence holders don’t get an invoice/reminder to pay.
  • Non-payers have realised there are no consequences for non-payment.

However, due to the SABC’s dwindling advertising revenue, it cannot afford to miss out on the millions it still makes from TV licences.

Unlike the DCDT’s proposal for a household fee, Outa argues that the TV Licence revenue should be replaced by more funding from National Treasury.

As it stands, government funding only accounted for about 3% of the SABC’s income.

“The SABC carries out an important educating and news feed mandate to citizens who do not get their news and information from any other source,” Duvenage said.

“For this reason, there is a responsibility for the State to partially fund the SABC to carry out its ‘non-commercial’ mandate.

“The SABC should consider a pitch to Treasury to cover its TV Licence portion of revenue and licenses should be ditched as a collection mechanism. It’s just not worth the fight.”

Now read: South Africans voting with their wallets — refuse to pay for TV licences

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Total TV Licence disaster