‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’, seems to be a proverb that the South African government has adopted wholesale.

The yet to be tabled South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) Bill apparently proposes the equivalent of the infamous hut tax that the British Empire levied on each ‘native hut’ within their southern African jurisdiction, after more than a century’s hiatus. Whether someone owns a television or not, they will now be required to pay the SABC’s new ‘household levy’.

South Africans, it is to be hoped, will not consider allowing such a thing.

The SABC has rightly argued that the present TV-licensing system is archaic and should be done away with. Any South African, offered the choice, would choose one of a multiplicity of private, competing broadcasters over the SABC, just as they would choose private healthcare over National Health Insurance, private air travel over South African Airways, and private courier services over the Post Office. There simply is no reason why South Africans should pay the SABC for owning a television set.

However, that the SABC wants to replace the television licence with a so-called household levy on every South African household, but for one or two exceptions, baffles the mind. It would not matter if a household owned a television or not; all that would matter, according to the SABC, is ‘that every single South African household has the realistic ability to access public broadcasting content’ in some way. Even if one never consumed an SABC service, the fact that one ‘could’, would mean the SABC must to be paid.

Imagine the outrage if a restaurant forced every South African to pay it a fixed monthly fee simply because South Africans theoretically ‘can’ go there to dine, regardless of whether they do or not.

For convenience, the SABC also wants to force private broadcasters to collect television licence fees (and, in the future, the household levy) on its behalf, much as the British colonial administration had chiefs and headmen collect the hut tax on its behalf.

Cash-cow for corruption

The SABC has been a cash-cow for corruption, has been mismanaged, and has been the apparent culprit in biased political reporting on its news platforms. Anyone with the choice would rather not use its services. South Africans ought not to entertain the government’s making the SABC any more of a burden than it already is through this policy insanity.

Indeed, one of the conditions of living in South Africa appears to be having to deal continuously with ridiculous policy ideas. It is unfortunate that we do not seem to have the same policy rationality that one might expect elsewhere, where one might disagree with a policy but understand that it had some rational basis and reasoning behind it. In South Africa, practically every time a minister opens his or her mouth, it seems that only nonsense comes out.

South Africans have to learn that sometimes ‘no’ is the answer to policy proposals. We cannot always let government have what it feverishly comes up with. Our economy and society cannot survive such an approach.

Some might feel pressured to accept these nonsensical policies because of the myth that they somehow ultimately benefit the poor and vulnerable among us. It is of fundamental importance to understand that they do no such thing. The poor and vulnerable would have been far better off receiving services paid for with the money that has been looted from and wasted on the SABC. In fact, through vouchers or subsidies, that money could have been better used to achieve the same ends that the SABC is meant to achieve.

Other nonsensical policies have robbed South Africa of the economic growth that would have been instrumental in liberating the poor from destitution.

The simple solution to the SABC’s woes is to get rid of it. To be more specific, government must either liquidate the broadcaster or remove it from its portfolio by privatising it in some way. The public-interest functions that the SABC is meant to serve can be better provided by other broadcasters. Government can subsidise the free-to-air channels and radio stations of well-run and profitable enterprises, or give vouchers to indigent South Africans to purchase their own private broadcasting services.

Constitutionally sound

Such a solution would be constitutionally sound, unlike government’s present approach. Section 195(1)(b) of the Constitution mandates the government to promote the ‘efficient, economic, and effective use of services’.

The endless amounts of taxpayer funds being funnelled into the SABC – indirectly through occasional bailouts and directly through compulsory licence fees – and the proposal to levy another tax on an already overtaxed population, do not comport with this constitutional standard. Privatising or liquidating the SABC, and directly helping the poor gain access to quality broadcasting services, would.

To those South Africans on the margin between the exempted and the non-exempted categories of the new hut tax, the R300-or-more household levy will not be insignificant. For many, that money represents several family meals. Government would have us believe that that money is better spent by a corrupt cadre or a dysfunctional State enterprise that does not cater for basic needs.

With one voice, South Africans should say ‘no’ to these and other silly policy proposals.

[Image: mohamed Hassan from Pixabay]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Martin van Staden is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation and former Deputy Head of Policy Research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). Martin also serves as the Editor of the IRR’s History Project and its Race Law Project, and is an advisor to the Free Speech Union SA. He is pursuing a doctorate in law at the University of Pretoria. For more information visit www.martinvanstaden.com.