Should not paying your TV license be a crime? – Zakhele Mthembu

The widespread refusal to pay TV licenses in South Africa highlights the perils of criminalising non-harmful behaviour. Mandated by the Broadcasting Act, these licenses, unrelated to public safety, only serve as revenue tools for the state broadcaster, SABC. Amidst soaring violent crime rates, allocating resources to prosecute non-payment distracts from addressing serious offences. Advocates argue for a shift in focus, urging lawmakers to prioritize laws safeguarding individuals rather than penalizing citizens for trivial offences like the TV license.

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By Zakhele Mthembu*

The mass non-compliance with the legal requirement to pay TV licenses by the South African public is a perfect example of the dangers and wasteful nature of criminalizing non-harmful behavior.

South Africans are required by law, through section 27 of the Broadcasting Act No.4 of 1999, to pay for a TV license; a TV license being a piece of paper issued by the state, which makes it legal to use/possess your television set at home. Failure to pay money to obtain this piece of paper will result in a fine not exceeding R500 or imprisonment not exceeding six months, or both a fine and imprisonment. 

Now a TV license is wholly divorced from any form of harm prevention for the rights of individuals. The requirement for license to operate machinery like a vehicle either on land, sea or the sky, is reasonable given that not having that license, and the training it represents, will result in an increased likelihood of harm to the right to life of various people in society. 

The license for operating a car has the end of making sure that you can operate the machinery in a manner that will not cause harm. The license for a TV is not remotely related to the operation of the television set. Possessing a TV license does not increase the likelihood that you will safeguard the rights of others, nor does not having it increase your chances of violating said rights.

TV licenses are meant to be revenue raising mechanisms for the public broadcaster in South Africa, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). It is a form of revenue raising for the state through the SABC that was not in a money bill when introduced as is required by Section 77 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. The Broadcasting Act, then B94-98, was introduced in the National Assembly in 1998 by the then Minister for Posts, Telecommunication and Broadcasting.  

Most importantly for the spirit of Justice, not paying a TV license should not attract any form of criminal charges because it harms no rights aside from the ones the SABC ‘has’ due to legislation. The violation of another person’s rights should be the standard for criminal persecution or treatment. 

Not paying a TV license should not see you as a citizen sharing a prison cell with a thief, a murderer or rapist. The state should not be spending its limited resources in the criminal justice system arresting and/or prosecuting members of the public who did not pay money for the state’s piece of paper for their television sets. 

South Africa has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world, which means our police officers and general criminal justice system is finding it difficult to deal with those crimes which harm other people – that is, violent crimes. Having the system deal with those actions which harm no one too is counterproductive is solving violent crime is the end we all want.

According to the latest crime statistics released by the South African Police Service (SAPS) there are over 86 murders reported in South Africa per day, with only an 8% conviction rate for reported murders. The South African state is already failing with handling violent crime, it should focus solely on it given the harm crimes like murder have contrasted with the nonpayment of a TV license. 

South Africans have been boycotting the payment of their TV licenses for a couple of years now, yet the state persists in mandating them. When laws are absurd, their observance becomes absurd too. Yet when disregard for the law enters the psyche of any society, it becomes difficult to have said society respect useful laws such as those against harming persons or property.

It is imperative that the lawmakers in any society make laws that seek to protect against harm to other members of the public. This creates the objective standard wherein the observance of these laws safeguards against harm to another. When laws are meant to safeguard the coffers of the SABC for instance, it sullies all laws when people do not observe it given its absurdity.

To arrest the violent crime crisis that has become part of daily lives and experiences in South Africa, we need to focus primarily on it. This becomes harder to do when law enforcement and justice administration are dealing with those who commit violent crimes, yet the state deems them criminal those whose actions are nonviolent. Thus, statutory offences, like the TV license one, should be done away with.

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*Zakhele Mthembu BA Law LLB (Wits) is a legal researcher at the Free Market Foundation. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.