Well this is a story with legs on it, and it started long ago. The adage goes that if you want to boil a frog alive, you have to heat the water so slowly that the frog never realises it is being cooked and so does not jump out of the pot.
Not something that can be verified by anyone halfway decent, but it is a vivid image of how given enough time we can all get used to an unfavourable situation. Which is why I am always surprised when governments make snap decisions, especially when it comes to taxation.
There is nothing quite like not feeling the financial weight of governance. For the longest time, the direct costs of government in Tanzania have been obscure enough to seem easy to bear. Like most I am happy to have a socialist outlook and believe in the redistribution of wealth, so long as I cannot feel the hand of the state in my pocket.
It is especially easy to do as we outwardly embrace a progressive income tax regime. I thought this gave us a certain kind of relationship, like we are all in this together.
And then Tozo came along. I asked what Tozo translates to and it is a levy. English has a million words for taxes and levies, in Kiswahili we do not have all those words. Kodi, probably from the English word ‘code,’ probably taken from the penal code. It just about covers everything. Rent, taxes, levies for the most part. Kodi all the way.
In asking for a translation I was looking for an answer as well as an admission that if we’re paying the government a cut of our monies and there is nothing we can do about it? That is a tax. And for all my blather about “we’re in this together” I don’t like taxes any more than you do.
Money is a funny business. From the cowrie shell to the non-fungible token (NFT) with several failed economics classes in between, my study of this phenomenon hasn’t gotten me very far.
It is a capability, a symbol, and where we store potential as well as status and value. It is a metaphor, and like a metaphor it cannot be eaten.
And Tanzania is a poor country. We have been poor our whole Tanzanian lives, as a collective. We know that money can’t be eaten. We still remember the old ways of mutual help — of lining up for sugar rations, of gifts of food and clothing rather than cash. Our currency wasn’t really worth much and we still built a country.
Mostly, I think, because we didn’t have to think about taxes quite so directly. So we did the necessary and adopted the international monetary system.
But that is a fiction too. Economics teaches you that the poorest are the most burdened with taxes, it has always been that way. Trickle down poverty is real. There is always a breaking point though.
Throughout history people have been consistent about having enough of a tax burden and it has led to revolutions before. As much as we talk of development and changes, nothing can make that as real for a citizenry than the squeeze of cost of living.
Everything is theoretical until you are down to one meal a day and wondering what to feed the young ones.
When Tozo came to Tanzania it started politely and then escalated so fast that the proverbial frog took notice. Every transaction became expensive in an economy that was growing and breathing.
First the small businesses fell under, then the medium and big ones did until finally we looked each other in the eye And then we turned to our government and said “enough’’. Because life is tough enough as it is. Life is tough. Trying to be socially conscious and kind to each other? Very expensive. What’s up?
And the government didn’t have an answer. This was not kind. This was not resulting in the economic growth we all want. This was not socialist-flavoured in spirit.
It had nothing of the familiar sharing and caring. And it was too fast for us not to notice. It raised questions, a lot of questions, about our relationship to government in the first place.
As I type, the levies have come down to a reasonable level again and we can make it work, I think. We can agree to be fine and work our social ways to help each other get back to business.
Which is why I am always surprised when governments make snap decisions when it comes to taxation. Taxes can do the one thing that almost everything else cannot: unite people.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]