TJ STRYDOM: Make paying tax easier and we'll do it, albeit still grudgingly
Tax season, which starts this week, is much less fun than, say, the festive season, with its gifting and indulging. And much less exciting than the hunting season, with its promise of biltong and the inevitable stalking. When it comes to the dreary business of tax collection, the South African Revenue Service (Sars) is the one doing the stalking. And stalk it feels it must. About half a decade of questionable management practices has compromised the service's ability to rake in the revenue. The national budget in February flagged a shortfall of R42bn for the latest fiscal year. Statistics released by Sars in April painted an even bleaker picture, putting the deficit at more than R56bn. This is big. The largest new listing on the JSE this year was MultiChoice - its market value is now roughly R56bn. Sars under-collected a MultiChoice last year!Sure, it was tough out there. When the economy goes sideways, companies have smaller profits to declare, employees aren't as flush with cash from bonuses and small businesses go up in smoke. Generally, there is much less for Sars to collect. And SA has had almost a decade of feeble growth.The deluge of evidence that the state has for years been an easy target for looting also does little to inspire taxpayers to fork over more cash to those empty coffers.New Sars commissioner Edward Kieswetter's comments this month that taxpayers' compliance is the key to reaching the service's revenue target are not wrong.The question is how to get South Africans to comply after there has been such a blood trail of taxpayers' hard-earned money being used in other departments not only wastefully, but specifically to enrich a connected clique at the top.Appealing to a sense of duty or threatening small-time tax dodgers with the full force of the law is just not the best way to go about it. Try it, but don't be surprised if the results are similar to the SABC's struggle with the collection of TV licence fees.The taxman used to be the star in the civil service. A beacon of efficiency, dutifully collecting the revenue to be spent on projects - good or bad - in other departments. And it spawned some great ideas. Think of e-filing - an option to avoid those long queues of chairs at the Sars office in, say, Randburg, or the "you are number 455" on the call-centre line.But more than a decade later, and e-filing looks pretty much the same.None of the major banks would get away with keeping their user interface unchanged for so long. Clients vote with their feet. And they will migrate to a fresher, simpler alternative as soon as their frustrations reach a certain level.Taxpayers don't have the option of taking their business to a revenue collector with better and more intuitive systems. (A cynic would say they do - what about emigration? But it is tough to imagine that Sars's e-filing system is a top reason to uproot a family and relocate permanently .)Compliance is about more than duty or fear. It is also about ease. It is about helping taxpayers to make the purchasing decision as comfortably as possible. Because that is what paying tax is - it is purchasing a part of government. It is having skin in the game. Yes, it's always a bit of a grudge purchase. But surely it can be easier?And SA has enough tech start-ups that have come up with innovative payment solutions to not be stuck in the early 2000s when it comes to tax collection. We have the creative minds we need to change things. So let's start by re-imagining e-filing. The pdf-type system we've been using is so last season.