The decree had gone out that all the world should be taxed, but on my third attempt to render unto Caesar those things that are his, he finally told me that my internet session had expired. I would have to go in person to the Receiver of Revenue.
It was just as well; I had questions that no e-filing drop-down menu could answer. For example, could I offset my publishing royalties of 76c against the cost of the five crème caramels I ate in a futile attempt to dull the ache of getting royalties of only 76c? Given that time-wasting is crucial to the creative process, could I legally deduct medical treatment for YouTube-induced eyeball desiccation?
But answers would have to wait: the queue outside SARS stretched around the corner of the building and down a side street. With nothing to do but avoid making eye contact with my fellow Capetonians, I could stand and reflect on how we were united in our diversity, and how noticing our diversity probably made me a racist. After all, the only way you can know you’re part of a Rainbow Nation is to be acutely aware of racial difference and to perform a bizarre ubuntu-affirming mental pencil test on everyone around you.
The black and coloured people, too familiar with queuing, barely moved. Now and then an elderly black woman would allow herself a small expression of fatigue, wiping her palm slowly across her face and sighing, “Sho”. The white people were less self-contained. They fidgeted like otters, bobbing around, popping up, peering, darting away, before asking, “Is this the queue for everyone?”
Middle-class people, the ideological defenders of the queue, have no experience of real queues, the kind where you put your head down and flush away three hours of your life. It offended them. This wasn’t like the queue at Woolies. This was a Banana Republic atrocity. Some stomped off into the building to emerge a few minutes later tight-lipped, shaking their heads; the international sign for white anxiety feeling persecuted by black bureaucracy.
Next to me, a young woman took a book out of her bag: The Seven Habits of Highly Efficient People. The irony of her reading this particular book here, in a stationary queue for people who had left things far too late, was apparently lost on her: she dreamed through the pages, trailing her finger under the subheadings that reassured her she was making progress, at least through chapter three if not through her 20s.
The man in front of her asked her what she did. “Training to be a seer,” she replied. Like a psychic? No, a seeyay, a CA, a chartered accountant. But a seer wouldn’t have been out of place here. We were a column of supplicants, shuffling towards Delphi, seeking glimpses of our future. Soon we would enter the cave and be shown the mysteries; the IR12 forms, the income source codes. We would nod and give thanks, understanding little of what we had been told, but sure that it held great import.
Once inside, playing musical chairs in time to the electronic voice calling the next number to the next hutch, the inner cynic was roused. It felt wicked that a state could be so superb at extracting wealth while remaining so rotten at using it wisely.
But soon the rhythm of the place soothed these anxieties. This was not a mugging by the hyenas that satirists warn us about. If a food chain was being enacted here, it was something gentler, inexorable, sustainable; ants farming aphids, perhaps.
Apparently ants secrete some sort of tranquillising joy-juice from their feet that keeps their little herds of aphids calm and prevents them doing silly things like staging tax boycotts and pheromone-delivery protests. Sitting in my hutch, being gently milked, I could empathise with the aphids. I wanted to ask my officious ant-lady how she could be so impassive when she and I both knew that some of my money, earned without breaking a single law, was going to be stolen, lost or wasted by people who were untouchable by prosecutors.
I wanted to paint myself blue, like William Wallace or those mega-Smurfs from Avatar, and lead a revolt. But I didn’t. I smiled and nodded, and fought a sudden and irrational urge to confess to fiscal crimes I hadn’t committed. The tranquilliser seeped into us from the slightly-too-dim lights overheard, from the forms, the hypnotic clicking of mouse buttons, the murmur of the other aphids in the queue .
And when I finally hurried out, the oracle’s printout under my arm, all I felt was relief and an odd kind of gratitude. Was this what Stockholm Syndrome felt like? I wondered about it for about eight seconds, and then slipped back into aphid apathy. My tax was sorted. Best not think about it for another year.
First published in The Times and TimesLive