Character Building in South Africa- Registering as a Taxpayer

I’ve been on vacation in Canada for the last little while, which kind of spoiled me, I guess, cause I ALMOST forgot how to be mind-numbingly patient. And if you know anything about South Africa, you’ll know that it will bring anybody who holds things like efficiency dear to their knees. You can beg, plead, and make deals with God all you want, but you won’t be able to get things done as quickly as you think. And such was my experience with the SARS (South African Revenue Service) yesterday when I braved legendary South African customer service to get my tax reference number. If you landed on this post in hopes of finding out how to register as a taxpayer in South Africa, you’re in luck. I’ll fill you in. And I’ll also fill you with dread when you know just what to expect.

I’ve been here for just over a year now, and somehow I JUST found out that I need to register as a taxpayer in South Africa. I just kinda thought it would be automatic or something because apparently critical thinking has never really been my strong point. Obviously I knew I had to pay taxes, but of course, this being South Africa and everything, registering as a taxpayer isn’t super easy. Because as I’ve noted before, nothing here is EVER easy.

As much as I’d rather slam my gigglestick in a car door for 3 days straight than deal with the frustration of South African bureaucracy, this needed to be done, so I picked a day I could blow, told my type A personality that it was in for a wild ride, and drove to the nearest SARS office. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but it can’t be overstated: if you have to do ANYTHING related to licensing or setting up services in South Africa, bring a book. Every once in a while officials here will have a rare fit of efficiency, but that’s the exception, not the norm. “But Phil, I have a smartphone- I’ll be fine,” you say. Hahahahahaha. No you won’t. Sometimes there’s good cell service here. But sometimes there’s not, and as it strives to get a signal, your phone battery will die faster than a non-white character in a horror movie. And even if you DO have a good signal, after a few hours your battery will be dead anyway and you’ll wish you took my advice.

After I went through security, I was directed to a desk to be issued a number. The woman in charge of these numbers seemed to have a very difficult time believing I didn’t already have a tax reference number, and she asked me numerous times if I was SURE I didn’t already have one. After some lively back and forth, she finally conceded and gave me my number. Off to a pretty solid start.

Much to my surprise, I had to wait for only a little more than an hour before I heard a glorious announcement over the speaker that it was my turn! I was actually a little bit bummed because I was really getting into my book, but I gathered all my documents and confidently walked to the counter. Not confident that this whole process was going to go smoothly, mind you, but confident that my blood pressure would increase to dangerous levels very soon.

As I walked up to counter 15, another man was just vacating the seat I was about to occupy. He had a pained, weary look on his face as he stood. This was a man who had been crushed, soul-broken. He desperately locked eyes with me and said with utter despair two single words: “Good luck.”

And so it began.

Tax Reference Number

Even simple tasks in South Africa turn into a this show in a very short period of time.

I smiled as I took my seat, knowing that I was about to have a new blog post. Here’s roughly how it went down:

Me (smiling): “Hi, how are you today?”

Him (not smiling): “…”

M: “I’m here to register as a new taxpayer. The SARS website says I need to come here to get a tax reference number.”

H: “…”

M: “OK, well, uh, I have the documents I need. Here’s my passport, a copy of my passport, my TV License to prove my address, and certified copies of 3 months’ of bank statements.”

H: “What are you here for?”

M: “To get a tax reference number.”

H: “Why do you want a tax number?”

M: “Uhhhh…well, I live here, and I need to pay taxes.”

H: “You pay taxes here?”

M: “No, not yet. That’s why I’m here. I need to pay taxes, and for that, I need to have a tax reference number.”

H: *takes documents from me and stares at them for several infinities. “What’s this?”

M: “That’s my TV Licence. The website says that I can use that as one of my pieces of ID.”

H: “Your address is Radio Park Building on Henley Road?”

M: “No, that’s the address for the company who issues the TV Licences.”

H: “Where is your address on here?”

M: “Right here” *pointing to the address that appears right below my name on the TV Licence.

At this point he started typing. Or something like that, anyway. He seemed not to realize that he had any other fingers than the index finger on his right hand. And he searched for every. single. letter. Also, he kept making mistakes, and instead of simply hitting backspace, he would slowly highlight the whole word with his mouse, delete the entire thing, and start again.

H: “I need your passport.”

M: “You put it under those papers beside the computer.”

H: *Slowly flipping through the pages until he sees my picture and relevant information: “When does this expire?”

M: *reaching across the counter to point to the page he’s looking at: “Here’s the date.”

H: *enters the wrong date on his computer.

M: “Sorry, it looks like you entered the wrong year there.”

It was entirely clear to me that I was going to have to watch what was going on, so I moved in a little closer and rotated his monitor so I could see it a little better. He didn’t seem to have any objections to that. Good.

M: “Oh, I also see you spelled my name wrong. Let’s fix that, too.”

H: *highlights my entire name, deletes it, then starts over again.

H: “Where is your banking information?”

M: “Those are the papers you’re holding right now.”

H: *starts entering the details. “What is your bank?”

M, Even though it clearly states the bank and all applicable info on the papers he’s holding: “FNB”

H: *Scrolling past FNB on his drop down menu of bank names, and stopping on Standard Bank: “FNB isn’t here.”

M: “Scroll back up- it starts with F. Nope, now you’ve gone too far. Back down. Too far again. Back up. There it is!”

H: “They should make these easier to find.”

M: “But it’s alphabetica…know what, never mind. Yes, they should come up with a better system.”

H: *FINALLY completes all the banking info, then clicks the cancel button instead of the next button.

H: “Eish.”

M: “Eish.”

H: “I need your details again.”

M: “No problem. Wait, you scrolled too far again. Back up. A little bit further. There’s FNB.”

H: *after entering all the information again: “It’s not letting me go to the next screen.”

M: “Let me take a look. Oh, know what? I bet the red boxes around some of the blanks mean there’s some missing information. Ya, OK, see where it asks you to check what kind of account this is? Here, let me just click this one for you. Yep, that did the trick, ok, now let’s try to go to the next page again.”

And there it was. The end of my patience. Now I was just doing his job FOR him. The rest of the process was insanely simple- the creators of the program had made it easier than boxing a toddler. All you had to do was follow the prompts and fill in the missing information. If any required information was missing, a red box would show you where. It was idiot proof. Just not South African government employee proof.

After I finished with the next couple of screens, the gentleman informed me he needed to call his supervisor over to complete the process and sign off before I could get my number. Then he just sat there and did nothing.

M: “So, did you, like, press a button or something to tell him he needs to come over?”

H: “No, I don’t see him. I don’t know where he is.”

At this point, he pulled up a screen that listed all the active employees on the floor and stared at it for a while. This screen had efficiency targets beside each employee and showed how each person was doing. My particular guy was sitting at 72%. That sounds dismal enough, but please understand that these are SOUTH AFRICAN efficiency standards. If you’re not hitting THOSE targets, man. I don’t know what to tell you. Anyway…

M: “Maybe there’s somebody we can ask?”

H: *Saying something in another language to the employee next to us: “He’ll be here just now.”

After a couple minutes, the supervisor showed up, banged out a couple stamps, signed a couple of documents, and disappeared again. At this point, the original employee wordlessly shoved a stack of papers towards me and started analysing the computer screen again. I pulled out my phone and started reading the news, wondering how much longer I was going to be there. As it turns out, not much longer at all. After a short while:

M: “What else do you need from me?”

H: “Nothing. We are finished.”

M: “Huh? Why didn’t you say anything?”

H: “No, I thought you knew.”

And there it was. I can now pay taxes. Which is awesome, because I pay way more in tax here than I did in Canada, but there are no perceivable benefits. Roadways are a mess, the police are mostly corrupt, and there is no such thing as free healthcare or education. But all that is for another day…

So if you just skimmed to the end because you’re a foreigner and just want to know how to register for a tax reference number, here you go:

  1. First, collect the documents you need. You’ll for sure need a copy of your passport, and you’ll need your original passport. The official website specifically says that your passport copy doesn’t need to be certified, but save yourself the hassle and get it certified anyway, because you’ll inevitably run into someone who insists the rules have changed. You can get anything certified at a post office or police station for free in South Africa.
  2. Have 3 months of bank statements with you. These need to be stamped by your bank, so you’ll need to make a trip there first.
  3. You’ll also some sort of proof that you’re you. A list of documents that are accepted can be found here.
  4. Then, just go to your nearest SARS branch and be prepared to blow several hours.

It’s a simple process in theory. At the end, they will give you your tax reference number, and you can use that to register for e-filing online. If you can manage to not lose your cool in the office, you’re all set!

As the poor, beleaguered man before me in line said: “Good luck.”

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About the Author

I’ve been many things. A university English instructor, a picker upper of dead bodies, a musician, and a sales guy. My work brought me and my family from Vancouver, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa in September 2016, and I’m still wondering how that happened. I started this blog mostly because my friends back in Canada kept asking me how things were in South Africa, and posting about my experiences seemed more efficient than repeating myself hundreds of times. Maple and Marula is a way for me to make sense of my new surroundings as an expat who has no idea what I’m doing.

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  1. Sorry dude. Sadly SARS used to be extremely almostly Godly efficient 5 years ago when it was not run by a corrupt thieving individuals. I remember when I had to get mine done, I was out in 15 minutes.

  2. How I applied for a tax number: Hired an accountant, met with her once at her office and provide her with the few documents listed above, and a few days later she emailed me my tax number. I think she charged me a few hundred rand for this service.

    Perhaps you won’t appreciate this alternative strategy, after what you went through. But the good news is, your process yielded a far more interesting blog post.

    Along similar lines — I’m just trying to make you feel better here — I went through HELL getting my traffic register number. The process yielded enough content for a three-part blog series. (Maybe you’ve read it.) And then just recently I found out from another expat that you can hire someone to go and get your traffic register number for you. She charges R800.

    1. Haha! I read all about your saga! I had a similar, though not QUITE as terrible experience getting my TRN.

      I’m going to have to start looking into the whole “throw money at people to get them to wait in lines” thing in the future. I’m pretty sure I’m one waltz with incompetence away from an aneurysm.

      I really wish you would have posted this reply to my blog post that didn’t exist BEFORE I went to SARS yesterday….

      1. I tried to type a long reply earlier, then hit send and for some reason the site decided I was a bot and deleted the comment. But anyway, what I was saying was, I don’t think accountants even need to wait in line to get SARS numbers for their clients. They just wave their magic SARS wand and the number appears.

        But anyway, the accountant who I hired wound up being pretty useless and never responded to my emails. She got me the SARS number and that was about it. Just goes to show that no solution is perfect. But I’ve finally found a good accountant now and the original SARS number is still serving me well.

        1. Oh man- that’s weak. Sorry about my website being a jerk to you.
          I find pretty much most things here are a crapshoot-you may get amazing service, but probably not. At least it’s a neverending source for blog material.

  3. Ha! Next you should try the VAT department of SARS!!! Another nightmare! Had my own demo of SA efficiency today. Went with a friend to pick up her renewed Driving Licence. A rather large lady slumped over at the entrance, we ask where do we go to pick up the licence. “Inside” says she, lips barely moving. There is a queue nearly reaching the street, so we confirm, inside? Now she has to repeat herself, “Inside”. We walk past all the people in the queue who glare at us as if we were cheating them and once inside we see a table with a man operating a computer and another who is trying very hard to stay awake. My friend presents him with her bit of paper and we are waved away and paper is handed to computer guy who disappears into another office. Half asleep guy is so bored that he decides to pick his nose to just stay awake! My friend is standing but I go to sit down. Half asleep guy takes finger out of nose and tells me “Collections outside”. Now I am confused. Are you talking to me? He repeats, collections outside. So I go and look outside in case there is a hole in the wall where computer guy will be waiting licence in hand – nothing, just the same queue of hot and tired people. I come back inside and computer guy appears with licence! Yay!! My friend signs and we leave! Great relief as some people had been waiting for 3 hours to renew their licences! Africa, how I love you!!!

    1. You know, before I moved here, I would have thought you were exaggerating, but after a little over a year here, I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about! The good news is, everything is a new adventure!

  4. LOL. I love the part where you say you knew you were going to have a good story. That is why I can’t comprehend expats who are NOT blogger ins South Africa. It’s the only way to keep your sanity. Yay another crazy story for my blog, yippee, let’s see how bad it can get to make it more exciting!

    Also, in retrospect it occurs to me that we never applied for one of those. Hmm. Were we tax evaders? But if so I’m being punished for STILL receiving reminders about my UIF payments and TV license renewal. I’ve given up trying to get off those books. If I ever move back to SA I will have a huge backlog of various fines to pay, I’m sure! May have to change my name…

    1. The only thing that prevents me from writing more is lack of time! There are tons of stories already stored in the vault that will make their way to the light of day at some future point.

      You guys may have had someone do it for you, which Heather pointed out to me AFTER I already went and did mine.

      I’ve heard that once you have a TV Licence, there’s no cancelling it, no matter how hard you try! I guess we’ll see how that goes. And UIF…according to their website, it can take up to 24 hours to respond to emails. Because they screwed up so many times with my application, it took 8 months to process mine. And now I’m trying to get them to process the 8 missing months so my domestic can get mat leave next month, but it’s been more than a month after repeated requests and phone calls from me, and they still won’t load the missing months on the system so I can pay them. Do you happen to know if there’s somewhere I can physically go for this, or am I at the mercy of waiting for their email reply, which in my experience, is about 3 months’ wait for each one?

    1. I didn’t really feel like laughing at the time, but I can totally appreciate it now! Happy new year to you too!

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