Ferial Haffajee: Stop taxing us! Spend our money honestly instead

Our jocular and entertaining Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has gone from cooking lessons on Twitter to explaining the finer intricacies of why we should pay our e-toll bills.

It’s not going to work. I pay my e-toll bills when they arrive, but among my many social and professional circles, I am often in the minority of people who do. In fact, most Gauteng people I know hoot with laughter when asked if they pay their electronic tolling bills. The boycott of e-tolls will rank as among South Africa’s great protests when our contemporary history is written. And it is one of the more spectacular tax revolts ever.

At the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse, of which I am a great fan, there is an entire war-room dedicated to fighting the imposition of e-tolls. Mboweni is fond of saying "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" as a way of getting South Africans to pay their dues. He’s so persuasive you want to cheer.

That is, until you open the Sunday papers and see how a whole army general (a supposed custodian of the Republic and its people) hooked up his wife with hundreds of millions contracts with the military. Last I heard, she was denying there was anything wrong with this.

A couple of weeks ago, the National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi said that R1.4trn had been lost to state capture.

Our government wastes billions (and now perhaps trillions) and instead of focusing on curbing this and putting it to good use, it is always thinking of new ways to tax us. At this week’s Winter School for future public economists run by the National Treasury, there was an entire day set aside to look at taxes and to plot how we will respond to new taxes.

Over-taxed

I have an answer: we will respond badly. Ordinary working South Africans who pay income and value-added taxes are way over-taxed. That which is raised in taxes is badly spent, whether in special or ordinary taxes.

For example: I read that of all the money raised by the plastics bag tax or levy, half went into the general spending pot and half to environmental measures. That’s just a waste of a targeted tax. How about putting all that money into the Green Scorpions who do such an admirable job of fighting infractions on our beautiful environment?

Don’t even start thinking of what happens to the fuel levy you pay, whether as a driver of your own car or if you lift share or use public transport. You will cry. I am currently looking at how government lost billions when it decided to sell off emergency fuel stocks for about half their value, costing us billions. The Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse, thank goodness, is onto that too, after the Central Energy Fund’s former chairperson Luvo Makasi blew the whistle. Your fuel levy pays for the emergency fuel stock, so that was your money too.

Moratorium

Sometimes I feel we should put a moratorium on government as a whole and on taxes in particular, until civil servants and politicians make the link between service and tax, between civil and servant and between leader and those who are led.

We can’t call such a moratorium, of course. Too many poor and struggling compatriots depend on social grants. There is no choice but to render unto Caesar for the purposes of social solidarity, but is it too much to ask that Caesar stops stealing from us?

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