SABC’s threatening TV licence SMSes

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) can legally send as many debt collection SMSes as it deems necessary without breaching South Africa’s harassment laws, Barnard Incorporated Attorneys senior associate Anneke Lotter said.

After a MyBroadband reader received multiple debt collection messages relating to TV licence fees in a single day, we asked the law firm if this could amount to harassment.

Lotter explained that because the payment of TV licences is mandatory and the SABC’s debt collection messages don’t cause harm, these SMSes are nothing more than a nuisance.

“The Protection against Harassment Act 17 of 2011 defines ‘harassment’ as ‘directly or indirectly engaging in conduct that he or she knows or ought to know causes or will cause harm to another person’,” she said.

“Receiving multiple communiqués regarding non-compliance with legislation is not intended to cause harm, nor can it be perceived by the recipient to cause or potentially cause harm.”

“Whilst it understandably can cause a nuisance to television users when receiving multiple text messages, it unfortunately does not amount to anything more,” added Lotter.

The payment of TV licence fees is mandated in terms of S27(1) of the Broadcasting Act 4 of 1999, and anyone who contravenes the act is subject to fines set out in S27(3).

“Accordingly, by not paying your television license, regardless of whether one is of the view that it is superfluous (especially given that most television users largely view streamed content), the wording used in s27 of the Act as aforesaid is unambiguous and inescapable,” said Lotter

“Naturally, prompts received from any party to urge users to comply with the relevant legislation can never be irregular or unlawful.”

Wayne Duvenage, Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse CEO

According to Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), South Africans shouldn’t be concerned if they have ignored these messages.

While it noted that the SABC could implement legal action against non-compliant TV licence holders, it said using the courts to try to recoup the debts would be difficult and costly.

The Broadcasting Act specifies that the maximum penalty a court could impose on an individual found guilty of failing to pay their TV licence is a R500 fine or up to six months in prison.

However, the legal costs associated with the process would run into several thousands of rands, making it a pointless exercise for the public broadcaster.

“It is just too small an amount to enter into legal challenges that may even backfire on them,” Outa CEO Wayne Duvenage told MyBroadband.

“Threats of prosecution are merely threats that I believe the public is aware that the SABC and the debt collectors will not be able carry out.”

He said this is why TV licence payment rates continue to drop.

“Just like e-tolls — when the cost to collect is too high, and consequences of non-payment is almost zero — collection rates will most certainly decline,” Duvenage said.

As a result, South African residents have boycotted the SABC TV licence scheme for several years, with payment avoidance rates reaching 87% in the 2022/23 financial year.

Therefore, only 13% of already-registered TV licence holders paid their fees for the year. This excludes “pirate viewers” who own a TV and should have a TV licence, but don’t.

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SABC’s threatening TV licence SMSes