TV licence penalties
The National Credit Act and the Consumer Protection Act are both intended to play a watchdog role, protecting consumers and the public from financial exploitation. Unfortunately they do not offer protection to consumers insofar as TV licence fees are concerned.
The SABC is evidently a law unto itself. It is conveniently governed by the Broadcasting Act, which allows it to charge the public “penalties” on outstanding TV licence fees of 10% a month on the outstanding amount.
The Broadcasting Act is of course an old piece of legislation. Modern times have clearly overtaken the intentions behind the Broadcasting Act, which enjoyed its heyday when the SABC had no competition. As the Broadcasting Act effectively rules the manner in which the SABC can conduct itself with regard to the public, the SABC is a creature of statute. It is regulated by an act of Government. This means that the payment by consumers of TV licence fees is a statutory obligation in terms of this Act.
This was confirmed by our courts in 1999. The conceptual framework is that the SABC conducts itself strictly in accordance with this Act and no contraccontrac t ual relation- ship is formed between a consumer/licence holder and the S A BC in respect of payment of a TV licence fee. Payment of t hese fees mu s t b e ma d e in accordance with a statutory obligation.
The SABC relies heavily on Regulation 17 of the Broadcasting Act, which states: “All television licence fees are payable in advance.” On its website under its Terms and Conditions, where it has summarised the provisions of the Broadcasting Act and its Regulations, the SABC quotes this Regulation and takes it further by stating that the effect of this is the following: Because of this, the National Credit Regulator (NCR) lets the SABC do its own thing. Most concerning is that the NCR allows the SABC to charge the exorbitant penalty of 10% each month on an outstanding licence-fee amount. The NCR states that it cannot interfere. To make matters worse, the consumer cannot help but wonder what he or she is actually getting for payment of the licence fee. It is quite obvious that many people are reluctant to TV licence fees in the first place. The SABC’s answer to this appears to be to penalise consumers rather than improve its offering.
If the SABC can escape the provisions controlled by the NCR because licence fees are deemed payable in advance, the interesting question is what happens when consum- ers make arrangements with the SABC to pay off their TV licence fees in instalments?
This arrangement must surely constitute a form of credit agreement between the consumer and the SABC. Remember that Regulation 19 of the Broadcasting Act provides the following: Annexure A makes provision for a domestic licence to be paid off in instalments of R26 a month for 12 months. After a year this amounts to R312. Obviously some form of fee has been levied by the SABC in return for the instalment arrangement – a typical credit agreement within the meaning of the National Credit Act. This can only mean that the SABC is providing consumers with credit. The consumer gets to watch his or her TV throughout the year and pays off the TV licence fee over a period of 12 months. Surely the SABC is now a credit provider in this situation? If so, it can’t have the best of both worlds. It can’t on one hand be a credit provider and on the other a statutory governed body far removed from the protections of the National Credit Act.
The obvious question is why should the SABC in effect be placed above the law in today’s times? Surely fairness, reasonableness and the values of the Constitution of South Africa should prevail above any other piece of legislation, including the Broadcasting Act and its Regulations? Garry Hertzberg is a practising attorney at Dewey De Souza Attorneys, Sandton. He is also the presenter of “The Law and You” radio show on ChaiFM 101.9 every Wednesday between 18:00 and 19:00.