Small enterprise: the canary in the coal mine of a toxic business environment

Johannes Wessels
@johannesEOSA1

Small enterprise in South Africa is unimportant for the Government. Whilst there is lip service to creating conducive conditions for small enterprise, the Government ignores the reality of small formal firms disappearing at an alarming rate. Small enterprise is the canary in the coal mine of a toxic business environment:  they die off first before the toxic conditions are lethal for large businesses.

Big Government favours Big Business (for tax income) or Big Labour (watering its socialist roots to ensure worker class loyalties). Small business cannot fulfil either these roles.  The demise of small formal enterprises in South Africa (as recorded in SARS data) is indicative of an utter indifference by Government to the plight of small enterprise.

That raises two questions:

  • Is the demolition of the small formal enterprise environment a strategy by Government to achieve its objective of radical racial economic transformation?
  • Is it also a strategy to plug a hole in the leaking SARS ship since, from a VAT perspective, businesses with a turnover below R1 million is a drain on Treasury?

Based on SARS data on Value Added Tax (VAT) covering the years 2007/8 to 2017/18 the devastation on micro and small businesses with a turnover of R1 million or less, is evident.  The number of VAT vendors in this bracket declined by 49% from 300 299 in 2007/8 to 154 559 in 2017/18. 

145 740 small enterprises gone…

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SA lost 83 000 companies in the financial & business sector in 10 years

Johannes Wessels@

@johannesEOSA1

The landscape of incorporated South Africa in the financial and business services sector has changed dramatically: in 2007 a total of 222 532 companies in this sector submitted tax returns, but SARS Company Income Tax (CIT) data show by 2016 this figure had shrunk to 139 664: a 37% decline.

The CIT data base records a decline by almost 83 000 incorporated firms.  What happened?

This sector includes banks, money lenders, short term insurance firms and independent brokers, investment advisors, business consulting firms as well as real estate services. Figure 1 shows how the number of firms were relatively stable from 2007 to 2010 before a rapid decline before stabilising again from 2014 onwards.

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SA enterprise sector critically ill

Johannes Wessels

@johannesEOSA1

The formal South African Enterprise Sector is critically ill. Were the company tax returns of the 768 000 companies combined and submitted as that of a single entity (say SA Amalgamated (Pty) Ltd) there would not have been any Company Income Tax (CIT) payable to SARS for three consecutive tax years.

SARS data on Company Income Tax (CIT) confirms the private sector is in a dismal state. In the tax years 2014 – 2016 assessed joint losses of all companies surpassed joint taxable income by R445 billion.

SARS data on CIT from 2007 to 2016 on assessed CIT returns bring the following to the fore (see Figure 1 below):

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The folly of creating businesses whilst tolerating a criminal-friendly environment

The South African enterprise world remains in critical condition despite numerous initiatives to cultivate entrepreneurship and new businesses since the real causes undermining its well-being are not addressed.  One of the fundamental causes for a struggling enterprise world is the fact that SA is more criminal-friendly than enterprise friendly.

Mooi River LEGO

We’ve seen that:

Comfortable in this paradigm, Government embarked on an interventionist road to transform the economy in accordance with its perceived reality. It launched a range of black enterprise incubation programs with massive grants, prescriptive procurement strategies, BEE, industry charters, interference with IP and a commitment to even expropriate without compensation.

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Salary offer to civil servants: stark contrast to leadership in Botswana & the Netherlands

A higher than inflation salary increase for the public sector against the growing mountain of losses recorded in Company tax returns, does not signal an urgency for effective governance and economic stability to change from an environment where crime offers better returns than business. Important players in Government (and the ANC) appear not to grasp decisions and actions have systemic consequences.

SARS CIT assessments

South Africa’s public service salary bill consumes, according to Prof Jannie Rossouw of Wits Business School, about 45% of tax revenue. A 2017 OECD report found South Africa’s public service wage bill exceeded 14% of GDP: substantially higher than the benchmark of OECD and Emerging Market countries.

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Investment ambassadors can try, but SA company losses exceed taxable income

Pres Ramaphosa’s announcement that four special ambassadors – including well respected Trevor Manuel – are to roam the globe in an aggressive pursuit of foreign investment  “… like a pack of lions”, appears to be premature. It would have helped these ambassadors if they could have had a better story to tell than one of a business environment with stagnating profitability and growing losses where:

  • only 25% of firms have earned sufficient to be liable for company tax;
  • firms with a taxable income below R10 million decline at a rate of 31 per week;
  • a mere 635 companies are responsible for 77% of company tax;
  • from 2009 to 2015 company losses as submitted to SARS increased by 85% and for the last two years were higher than the taxable income assessed.

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