TV licenses and civil disobedience


In 2023, the chairman of the SABC board, Khathutselo Ramukumba, revealed during a briefing to parliament’s portfolio committee on communications and digital technology that the evasion rate of TV license payments reached 87% over the past financial year – this compared to 82% in 2022 and 69% in 2019.

Put another way, only 13%, about 1 in 10, TV license holders paid their fees last year.

This striking case of so-called civil disobedience (non-compliance), which can even be seen as mass protest action against a broken, corrupt SABC, speaks of a government blowing the whistle and desperately clinging to an illusion of total power to enforce its legislation . In light of this, a new suspicion begins to appear on the surface of the public consciousness: What other laws and regulations is the government unable to enforce?

A sure sign of a government whose power and capacity is chronically crumbling is a growing reliance on the misleading projection and illusion of power and control. However, the simplest way to expose this acting can be found in the shrinking margins of government power.

The non-compliance opportunities with the least risk and the greatest chance of success are the opportunities where one first sees how citizens increasingly begin to challenge the government’s bluff. A shining example of this is the e-toll system, which boasted an evasion rate of 90% in 2023. This fact makes the abolition of this system inevitable and the government has already started grumbling about such an outcome.

The 87% evasion rate regarding TV license fees puts this part of the bloated government machine in the same category as e-tolls that cannot be successfully enforced. This reality reinforced AfriForum’s quest for TV licenses to be finally abolished in its written comments on the Bill on the South African Broadcasting Corporation SOC Ltd. AfriForum simply attempts to align the de jure reality with de facto reality.

If the government does not officially abolish TV licenses, they will eventually be abolished unofficially through mass non-compliance. These areas where effective and low-risk civil disobedience is possible will only grow as the government’s influence declines, its power to enforce its authority wanes, and the illusion of enforceability to which they desperately cling fades. Small or wounded dogs often hide behind excessive barking.

Another area that is increasingly beyond the government’s ability to control is racially discriminatory legislation (broad-based black economic empowerment). The percentage of JSE-listed companies submitting BEE compliance reports to the government has decreased markedly from 51% in 2017 to 40% in 2021. The number of BGSEB certificates uploaded to the BGSEB portal system has also decreased from 5 818 in 2019 to only 1,373 in 2021 – a 76% decrease.

If this trend continues, it is only a matter of time before the South African government’s racist regulatory ambitions collapse under the weight of growing non-compliance.

The government’s declining sphere of influence and power not only affects its ability to enforce immoral and destructive policies. It also begins to affect the delivery of critical services for which the government is currently responsible, such as policing, health services, infrastructure maintenance, border control, power generation and water supply. As the deterioration of government capacity begins to neglect these critical areas, as is already the case, the onus falls on communities to seriously mobilize in order to fill the gaps.

Nature has an aversion to vacuums, and so does power. If communities and NGOs do not effectively occupy the newly vacant margins on the expanding fringes of government power, criminal elements will.

A government blowing the whistle creates new opportunities, but communities interested in taking back control over basic services and security are not the only ones who see these opportunities. Historical regions that were rich in opportunity such as the Wild West, for example, were also characterized by the presence of opportunistic thugs. One of our top priorities must therefore be the establishment and expansion of effective, resilient security networks. In such disruptive times it is essential to understand, as my colleague Ernst Roets emphasized, that new realities are not created by demanding them from the government, but rather that new realities are recognized after communities have already created them themselves.

If the one lesson from the past 114 plus years of South African history is a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of an increasingly centralized government, we must ensure that the legacy of our time is that there is indeed life after the death of this old paradigm.