July 25, 2013

The Joys of South African Bureaucracy

I've recently been suffering from Africa withdrawal.

As a cure for my blues, I thought I'd reflect on a particularly annoying reminder of South African bureaucracy that keeps coming up time and again, by way of my email inbox:

The SABC has not yet received your television licence payment for the current licence year. Your licence year runs from 2013/03/01 to 2014/02/28 and your TV licence should therefore have been renewed by 2013/02/28.  The balance currently outstanding on your account is R275.00.

In terms of the Broadcasting Act penalties of 10% per month to a maximum of 100% per annum are levied on overdue accounts. In order to avoid incurring further penalties, full payment must be made by no later than 2013/04/07.

Should you wish to pay your licence directly via credit card on the TV Licences internet website, follow this link to access the payment site. Alternatively, you may pay at any of the other paypoints listed on our website and on your statement.

Should you require any assistance, please contact the SABC's TV Licences Contact Centre on 011 330 9555 during office hours (07:30 - 18:00 on weekdays and 08:00 - 13:00 on Saturdays).

We look forward to receiving the outstanding monies.

Yours sincerely

For those of you who have never lived in South Africa, the very idea of a TV License might be a rather alien one. Why would you need a license to watch TV in your very own home?


But you do. It's their way of collecting a tax for broadcast TV. Even though you will probably never be caught watching that, and even though you pay a much more handsome fee for cable via Multichoice. You still have to have one TV License per household, renewable annually.

So no problem when you're moving abroad, right? You just follow the link stated above and cancel your license?

No, of course it wouldn't be that easy. You have plenty of options for paying your renewal fee, but no option whatsoever to terminate your record altogether for having moved abroad. No one ever thought of that, apparently. It reminds me of the story I just read about Germany, a country similar to South Africa in terms of its zeal for record-keeping: The government discovered, to their horror, that they had one and a half million fewer residents than they thought they had. With negative implications on tax forecasts and all sorts of other indicators. One and a half million people simply disappeared. How was this possible when the government kept such good track of people's movements by making them register and de-register wherever they went? It's simple: People leaving the country never bothered de-registering. I myself am guilty of doing just that, twenty-something years ago.

Apparently, my phantom self will now be on the books of not just one country, but two. I will forever be listed as a TV owner in South Africa's vast bureaucracy. And, as was confirmed by friends with similar stories, the unpaid fees together with the penalties for non-payment will accumulate over the years so that if you ever move back and apply for another TV License, you will owe the government a ton of money.

Unless, of course, you remember to have your spouse apply the next time around. Or change your name.

The thing is, as annoying as it is, this story once again makes me shrug and say "Welcome to Africa" like I've done so many times over the years. In contrast, when things don't go well in the United States, even though they typically go a lot better than in South Africa, you don't just shrug your shoulders and say "Welcome to America."

No, you get angry that things aren't going well.

Not making them go better, incidentally, and making you feel a lot worse.