By Zel-Marí Gelderblom
A proposal for a public broadcaster service charge may be South Africans’ foreland one of these days. To understand why you may soon have to pay a fixed charge for your TV license to the South African Revenue Service (SARS), we first have to go back to 2014.
After the controversial Hlaudi Motsoeneng was permanently appointed as chief operating officer at the SABC in 2014, the public broadcaster deteriorated markedly. A skills audit in 2014 indicated that 60% of the SABC’s senior managers did not meet the minimum requirements for strategic thinking at management level, while 56% did not demonstrate sufficient competence in problem solving.
These and other factors have contributed to the SABC’s current dire financial position, which has led to the consideration of a fixed levy. Motsoeneng’s decisions were labeled as “irrational” and “draconian” and included ideas from 80% “good news” to be broadcast to newspaper headlines no longer being read on radio or shown on TV. There was also a major curtailment of media freedom, leading to the suspension of three senior journalists.
In 2017, the SABC sacked Motsoeneng after an internal disciplinary hearing found him guilty of conduct that brought the broadcaster into disrepute and caused irreparable damage. The decline of the SABC can therefore be attributed to serious problems with operational efficiency and management failures.
These challenges have raised questions about the government’s control over the SABC, especially because it uses public money in an unsustainable way. As a result, various institutions called on the government to privatize the SABC, especially when it was revealed in 2017 that the broadcaster was in a serious financial crisis and unable to pay its employees.
In 2018, dissatisfaction arose when the SABC board refused to place the public broadcaster into voluntary business rescue. Over the years, the SABC has considered various plans to raise more money to survive financially, but to no avail.
One example of this is when the SABC proposed to the parliament and portfolio committee for communications that providers of paid TV services such as DStv and Netflix should recover license fees from their viewers on behalf of the public broadcaster. Another example is an e-mail sent by the SABC to TV license holders stating that owners of TV monitors must also pay a license fee, even if these monitors can only receive a broadcast signal when connected to TV receiving equipment such as digital boxes, decoders, DVD players or even computers are connected.
It was also reported in 2021 that it is easy to trace money that the SABC has wasted, and that it is clear that the SABC is obstructing its own solutions. An example of this is that the SABC spent almost R1.2 million on 100 bulletproof vests for its journalists. Although this transaction was questioned by IVP MP Liezl van der Merwe, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, Minister of Communications and Digital Technology, defended the transaction. Then we are not even talking about Motsoeneng who sold the SABC’s archive to MultiChoice for a R30 million bonus amount. This transaction resulted in MultiChoice having to pay an amount of R553 million over five years to the broadcaster for the creation of two new channels on DStv.
It was also mentioned that Ndabeni-Abrahams revealed that the SABC spent R58,4 million between April and October 2020 on independent contractors. At that stage, the SABC had debts of R57, 1 million in unpaid TV licenses and advertising fees by government departments, municipalities and state-owned entities. In addition, the SABC’s legal bill in November 2020 amounted to more than R65 million.
It was recently reported that the cabinet approved a series of new bills to be tabled in parliament, including the SABC Bill 2023, which aims to improve the SABC’s funding model.
This means that a bill will be passed and the current broadcasting law will be repealed. This bill should increase the efficiency of the public broadcaster’s operations and replace the SABC’s funding model and TV licensing system. Although details of the bill and the resulting changes are not yet known, the possibility exists for a new household levy that will be collected directly by SARS.
However, it is an open question whether it is fair that taxpayers should bear the SABC’s financial problems. Can fist-pumping taxpayers really be expected to continue to fund the inefficient SABC? Do taxpayers really need to pay additional taxes similar to the levies on fuel? The concern is whether this money will really be managed in an efficient manner, and whether it will indeed be used for the right purpose. This on the eve of the implementation of national health insurance, which will further put taxpayers under pressure.
Serious consideration should be given to the privatization of the SABC, so that people will be willing to pay for a service they consider valuable. This could be an alternative approach to ease the financial pressure on the government agency.
- Zel-Marí Gelderblom is coordinator for content and media relations at AfriForum’s campaigns department. She has a master’s degree (cum laude) in gender politics at Nelson Mandela University.