Tjatjarag: Sars adverts help soothe nascent taxpayer resentment

2012-11-17 13:09

It’s not for nothing that the SA Revenue Service (Sars) was the subject of a Harvard case study.

The agency is South Africa’s most efficient and innovative, and is always held up as a public-service model.

The effective collection of tax has been a steady story of governance success.

Under former tax commissioner Pravin Gordhan, and now under his successor Oupa Magashule, tax compliance has taken the country from a state of high delinquency to one of high compliance.

It has enabled the steady increases in social spending that have resulted in important developmental outcomes, as captured in the Census 2011 results released last month.

These days, the agency is a model of innovation and technological advancement.

If you can, you submit your returns electronically and almost every tax season there is another innovation to make paying up easier.

Yesterday, Sars offices were open to deal with last-minute returns ahead of this season’s closing date.

This is a sea change from what Sars used to be: paper-driven, slow and inefficient.

It used to be sheer hell trying to pay your taxes to stay compliant.

Now paying up is efficient, if not pleasurable.

I’ve never thought of myself as a taxpayer, but as a citizen.

The connotations of rights claimed as “taxpayers” and “ratepayers” are uncomfortable for they assume the salaried and property-owning classes somehow enjoy a higher level of accountability from the state.

It does not sit easily with our national principles of equality and social solidarity.

But, of late, I have begun to look at my salary slip and wonder if my taxes are well spent.

Or even if civil servants who live so high on the hog and who spend so willy-nilly make the link between taxation and spending?

I often think not, and in no case is this clearer than the spending on President Jacob Zuma’s home at Nkandla.

Whatever our president may have told Parliament, what is not disputed is that more than R240 million of public funds were spent on upgrades by
the public works department.

The Ministerial Handbook only allows for security upgrades totalling R100 000.

Someone broke the law and paid way in advance of market rates for renovations to the presidential private estate.

The lack of accountability about this spending made me feel like a resentful taxpayer for the first time in 18 years.

So, just in time, I saw the beautiful Modjadji Ramphelo in a new advertising campaign for Sars meant to thank taxpayers and showcase the business, education and health support our money is put to. Sars knows the public’s getting edgy about corruption and the misspending of our money.

This time, the ad campaign’s done the trick and sloughed away my nascent resentment.

It’s good seeing the life-changing ways that public funds can be used by helping students like Ramphelo study or by giving successful entrepreneurs like Junior Mohlabi a hand-up into the economy.

I’m not sure that clever campaigns will always have the same impact.

We’ve forgotten already in our fast-paced country that lives with the volume turned up to the max – as banker Paul Harris noted recently – that just last week the Public Service Commission’s head, Richard Levin, told Parliament that public servants in business had cost the fiscus R1 billion in delinquency.

That’s a lot of money and a shocking admission, but it passed over our heads like so much wastage and corruption does.

So, while I felt for the president this week when he was visibly embarrassed and piqued by having to answer how he shelters his home and hearth, our politicians and public servants have to stop playing fast and loose with the purse so we can have fewer Nkandlas and more Ramphelos.

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