New SABC household ‘hut tax’ mooted

STATE-OWNED enterprise, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has approached Parliament with a scheme to raise what is essentially a media levy on each and every household, irrespective of whether or not one possesses a television set. The scheme resembles the ‘hut’ taxes of old, which were used by the colonial authorities as a form of ‘poll tax’ (see below) to force people into the migrant labour system, and are unprecedented in modern times.

PetroSA for example, doesn’t levy fees on motorcars as such, but receives taxes at the pump. It certainly doesn’t tax those without vehicles, and the same may be said of Eskom, which charges fees for connection to the grid, but ignores the temptation to charge those without any access to electricity.

SABC now want an unusual ‘device independent’ tax to plug a gap in funding that has emerged as increasing numbers of South Africans turn to the Internet for content instead of media provided by the broadcaster. The broadcaster currently receives funding directly from the fiscus and also advertising revenue, and it remains to be seen whether or not it possesses any legal basis nor power, to implement such an extraordinary levy.

The earlier threat of a license targeted at general purpose computing and smart phones appears to have subsided somewhat, and there are a number of objections one may make when it comes to taxing the Internet, since many providers such as this outlet, provide content for gratis. In effect SABC would be charging consumers for content over which it does not possess copyright nor any resale royalty agreements.

Before the emergence of Multichoice, SABC were essentially a national broadcaster. The only pay-tv channel Mnet was that provided by a single private company. The SABC television license was thus essentially an operating tax on televisions, levied by the government, to kickstart broadcasting in the country.

The SABC is not a government entity as such but rather a corporation owned by the state, competing alongside other private companies. State-owned enterprises do not posses the power to tax the public and it is unprecedented for them to approach parliament in this manner. Telkom for instance, doesn’t tax its competitors and neither does the Post Office foolishly charge those who do not use its services, but rather email.

At the end of the day, it is the government which needs to fund its public mandate. It should do this via the usual channels — VAT, Capital Gains and Income Tax — not via introduction of a special tax, nor by attempting to create revenue streams that would place it in the world of commerce.

South African are unlikely to accept a Household ‘Hut Tax’, which is really just another way of saying ‘Poll Tax’ ( also known as head tax or capitation) which is a tax levied as a fixed sum on every liable individual (typically every adult), without reference to income or resources. In the case of a Hut Tax, the tax is levied on every dwelling or household.

Nor should we stoop to concede to the implementation of a separate tax for government media, in other words paid propaganda. Whether or not the public mandate will be fulfilled by the SABC or other service providers remains to be seen. There is no reason why other cheaper outlets for government information should be considered, instead of imposing yet another tax on already-stretched consumers.