HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Let’s talk about tax, baby


If you’re in your 30s or above, you probably remember the FNB product that catered specifically to teens called Bob-T. It was a card issued to adolescents by the financial service provider (on application, of course) to help harness a culture of saving and involve the youth in the financial industry. Of course, the bigger capitalistic focus of it all was to create brand loyalty toward First National Bank from a very young age. And to be honest, it worked with me.

I received my first Bob-T card as a gift from my dad for one of my birthdays. My dad was always a really practical gift giver. A lot of them weren’t fun, but they were always meant to serve some kind of purpose in later life – to add to our skillset in how to ‘adult’, as we say these days.

It was my job to maintain that account. To make sure I was saving money – somehow. It was my responsibility to manage the R1, R2 and occasional R5 my granddad dished out to me, or the birthday money I got now and then, or the money kids receive on Eid from relatives, and make sure I apportioned a percentage of it to my Bob-T account. Of course, my mom would assist in taking us to the bank to deposit the funds.

I remember that ATM card so clearly. The base colour was the same blue branding that FNB still uses today and Bob-T was written in portrait fashion on the front - none of this formal horizontal format stuff. The “Bob” was written in navy blue with the “O” in the middle that looked almost like a coin and the “T” was a printed in a bright yellow with a kind of gradient effect.

It was a good gift. When you’re a kid, it kind of means a lot to have a bank card even if you have very little use for it. I didn’t quite understand the technicalities of it. For example, I thought that card was the be-all and end-all of my savings account. That without it, the bank wouldn’t know I even had savings and all would be lost. We were never allowed to carry them around with us, or spend from them actually, as far as I can remember.

Our main goal, our main test in fact, was to prove to my dad that we could keep them, look after them, always know where they were (in a safe place) and to always make sure we had savings.

I miss that Bob-T card and I think of it often. It fills me with nostalgia for a time when one rand coins were so big that it had to mean they were worth a lot. It makes me pine for time when I didn’t have to carry a card around with me in case of emergencies, or… anything really. When I didn’t have to dread the deadly swipe that often makes me feel like “this action is so easy. Pay. And… Bob’s your uncle but don’t forget about Bob’s brother, the evil uncle called Broke who sneaks up on you because you’re not disciplined enough to constantly tally up the miscellaneous nothings you have spent money on”. But mostly, it makes me long for a taxless time. A time when having a bankcard that you worshiped was not tied to the fact that you had to understand the taxes involved in its mere existence on your person.

This week Tito Mboweni delivered the Budget Speech. I find him to be quite a likable minister, especially in the department of finance. He’s got a playful demeanour that still seems trustworthy and jolly because he’s got nothing to hide. The delivery of his speeches, regardless of the mortifying information they carry, doesn’t fill me with paralysis. A little bit of personality can go a long way.

And while I understand what it means to pay X amount more on cigarettes or that pensioners definitely do not get the pension they deserve with abysmal “increases”, I definitely do not understand the full length and breadth of the most frightful of words. Tax! Three letters. A million ways to charge you.

We need to talk about tax. More. We need to talk about it outside the context of the Budget Speech and more than once a year. We need to normalise the tax conversation so that every year when Sars issues countless advertisements on billboards and websites and media – we’re not caught standing there with our heads in our hands fretting about things that no one actually taught us.

And I think of this often. Why is no one sitting South Africans down, physically, and teaching them how to do their taxes? I’m sure some people have a need and, more importantly, a use for information, like that in a unit right triangle the opposite side will equal the sine and the adjacent side will equal the cosine of the angle – but I don’t. Many people don’t.

Some of my dad’s other gifts included these horribly ruler-like-shaped math books called Instant Maths. I don’t even think you get them anymore. They were printed on cheap paper that the pencil never stuck to and filled with page after page of math equations. Addition. Subtraction. Division. Multiplication. And then, as you moved up levels you finally got to the: let the train be X part of algebra. And while I have no idea why the train needs to be X, I do know this, there are two letters missing from that ‘X’ and if we solved for tax instead of just ‘X’ we would all be better functioning citizens right now.

I don’t know a single person who at least once every 365 days stands around with a leaking butt stressing about trigonometry, but I do know plenty who really, really want to be good citizens and file their income tax – and more importantly, who need returns and need to understand how and why they might receive them.

I file my taxes religiously twice a year (I am a freelancer so it’s even more complicated, I have to file a provisional return in February and then another return whenever Sars tells me to because … I don’t know why) and I have zero idea if I will get a return or not. It is always a surprise. And I do not know how or why I am owed it or not. What did I do to deserve it? What didn’t I do? Who knows? Do you?

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.