Tax amounts to strengthening our democracy
19 August 2015
Posted by: Author: Xhanti Payi
Author: Xhanti Payi (BDlive)
I am becoming more and more convinced that we need to move more people into the tax-paying bracket. It may be hugely beneficial in sustaining our democracy.
The e-tolls debacle teaches us nothing if not that — but more of that later.
If you didn’t know, it’s that time of the year and, yes, I’ve just done my taxes. It was a process marred by frustration, anxiety and fear. Yes, I’m that guy.
As soon as the tax season opens, I’m first in line to file my return. I guess my Christian upbringing has not yet been eclipsed by my circular pursuits. So year after year, I make sure I "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s" as early as possible.
This year, for the first time since I started filing, it occurred to me that the South African Revenue Service (SARS) owed me some money — and so began the process of providing proof for the deductions and claims I was making.
I had to collect all sorts of invoices and proof of payments to support my return. Once submitted, I was asked to give more information.
At some point, I started to feel like I was in trouble and might face a Julius Malema type of tax situation. I needed more and clear information about my status. But, as I discovered, there is somewhat of a black hole. SARS can communicate with me directly, but I can’t do the same.
The people asking you for information are mythical entities hidden, I imagine, in a secret room with white walls and fluorescent light. You hear about them, you get messages from them, but can never speak to them. You have to communicate with them through mediums such as call centre agents who help you decipher their messages — although not always successfully. And then you wait. Come to think of it, they work much like ancestors. You don’t get direct access, but you fear their wrath. And if things work out, you can do really well.
I’m happy to report that things did work out well and I received a modest refund from SARS.
The point I’m making, though, is that, after this experience I became even more agitated by news of misspending and/or leaks in the public purse.
Reports of this feel more of a personal affront now than ever before.
As the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher often insisted: "There is no such thing as public money, there is only taxpayers’ money." Understood this way, I don’t feel at all that the various scandals of fiscal misappropriation, bungling and leaking in "public money" are removed from me. They are not a public issue, but a personal one. I feel it directly because it’s not public funds, but my money as a taxpayer.
I believe that if we succeeded in getting all South Africans of the right age to become taxpayers, we would achieve the kind of frustration and rage that fosters movements of a large scale whenever there are reports of serious misappropriation of our taxes.
Democracy works well when individuals are included, when the individual not only has a political right, but a vested interest, and when decisions made by political representatives have direct implications for the individual citizen.
The exclusion of millions of South Africans from meaningful economic participation, and indeed contribution to SA’s fiscal fortunes, may be one of the reasons we have increasing apathy and lack of active participation in democratic avenues.
We all have to feel that we have something to lose, or are affected directly. What does a decision to increase taxes have on the millions of South Africans who have no jobs and therefore are not paying taxes?
I’m not advocating for a nation of whiners; nor am I saying the unemployed have no interest or concerns about poor spending by the government.
Perhaps the e-tolls protests are telling us something in this vein. I cannot remember a time when so many people have been so consumed by a government decision as they have been by this tax. The employed and the unemployed are moved by e-tolls because it’s a tax that affects us all.
In one sense, the protest against e-tolls is against paying more taxes generally.
The other argument relates to paying more tax related to paying for the administration of the system, which is more about a perception of misappropriation and waste, rather than financing infrastructure.
The point is that, when it is not an issue removed from you that relates to "government money", as it is often referred to when we talk about wasted spending, but directly affects your pocket and ability to spend what you earn — you care.
But to bring more people into the tax pool, we need to bring them into employment. And that is another discussion.
• Payi is economist and head of research at Nascence Advisory and Research
This article first appeared on bdlive.co.za.