South Africa’s forgotten radio licence

A car radio licence for South Africans is not so far-fetched. A century ago it was a reality.

South Africa’s forgotten radio licence

A car radio licence for South Africans is not so far-fetched. A century ago it was a reality.

If there’s one thing that get people all up in arms, then it is the phenomenon of fake news. On the 8th of May social media was rife with a press release – dotting the SABC’s logo and the contact details of a SABC spokesperson –  that read: “the SABC is pleased to announce the introduction of the new SABC Car Radio Licences”.

The TV Licence Saga

It’s easy to understand why this slice of fake news was so believable. 

The SABC has been strapped for cash for some time now. And the public has heard everything – from needing a TV licence for any internet-capable device to a simple computer monitor.

For many South Africans, not a paying a TV licence has become some sort of national sport.

And the figures speak loud and clear with more than a fifth of South Africans (who owns TVs) not paying a TV licence.

But if you rewind the clock the idea of paying for a radio licence is not that far-fetched.

While South Africans do pay for radio when they pay their TV licences, there was a radio licence in the early years of the SABC.

SABC Radio Licence

In 1902 the Electric Telegraph Act of 1861 was amended to include radio (the first legislation in the world to do so).

Amateur wireless operators – knowns as “hams” – started to build their own wireless sets around 1912 and after the First World War,  people like John Samuel and Reginald Hopkins established their own radio stations .

If you had a receiver set at the time, the broadcasts from Cape Town – of gramophone concerts – could be heard as far as the Karoo.

By the early 1920s the ambition of the radio amateurs caught the attention of the government.

And they introduced licences. For the broadcasters and for the listeners.

If you wanted to listen to radio, you had to buy listeners’ licences.

It was the job of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs to issue and administer these licences (on behalf of the SABC). But it was not a smooth-sailing process to collect the funds. There was no proper system in place and the personal details of licence-holders were not recorded. Many got away with not paying their licences and became pirate listeners.

During the development phase of television in South Africa this lawlessness posed a great threat. Licences, as a means of financing, played a major role with the introduction of TV and the SABC developed and created a proper register of issued licences.

This proved so successful, that even before South Africa’s first official TV broadcast on the 5th of January 1976, most of the 200 000+ TV sets sold by the end of 1975 were licenced.  And at a cost of R36 per year it gave the SABC already an income of more than R7 million.

And as the new SABC TV licence came into existence, the old radio licence faded away.

Today, the radio stations under the SABC include RSG, SAfm, Radio 2000, Metro FM,  5FM, Ukhozi FM, Lotus FM, Thobela FM, Munghana Lonene FM, Phalaphala FM,  X-K FM, Good Hope FM,  Umhlobo Wenene FM, Tru FM, Motsweding FM, Lesedi FM, Ikwekwezi FM and Ligwalagwala FM.

And here’s the fire in the hole… if you don’t pay your TV licence because you don’t watch the SABC channels you might not be a pirate viewer but certainly still a pirate listener.


Early Radio Broadcasting in South Africa
Putting up screens : a history of television in South Africa, 1929-1976