In the 2004 budget speech, Trevor Manuel said:
there have been representations for the abolition of VAT on books. Some time ago, I requested a report on this matter, which I have considered. There are several problems. The definition of a ‘book’ for tax purposes raises challenges – the case for reducing tax on, say, magazines or coffee-table publications, is not compelling. As it happens, the tax loss would be large, and would very largely go to higher income households. With some personal regret, I cannot see how we could justify this change. I hope it will be appreciated that recent revisions to the tax status of public benefit organisations involved in promoting literacy and reading provide a more efficient and equitable fiscal contribution to this purpose.
Of course, no where in that speech does he deal with the real issue. Reducing, or abolishing, tax on books is intended to promote reading. I don't know about the rest of you, but the first publications I ever read were magazines. I tought myself to read with gardening magazines and the jokes sections of Reader's Digest. Not deep literature, admitedly, but it started a love-affair with the written word that endures, and led me to greater things. When I was twelve years old, I discovered that the classics, Jane Austen, the Bronte's, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, among others, were available in paper back for around R8. It was a dream come true. I plowed my way through them, buying one a week, though often reading them in a matter of hours, and feeling desperately deprived because I couldn't have a new one every day.
A little over a month ago, I tried to buy Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for my little sister. A new copy cost R114. I finally settled on a second hand hard cover copy (admittedly in beautiful shape) for R48. Now if I was in my dotage, and talking about inflation, such a difference would be understandable. But I'm not. I was twelve years old eleven years ago. Inflation alone does not have such a mamoth effect. How are children expected to develop a passion for reading when books are so prohibitively expensive. How are we, as academics and intellectuals, entitled to only occasional, and shockingly small amounts of money to assist with our research supposed to afford the literature we need? Varsity library? I beg you to search the archives at the Wits library, particularly the music section, to see the impracticality of that. And while interlibrary loans, or visits to other libraries are catered for, as an undergraduate student, I was not entitled to any of this. It was a distinct disadvantage, particluarly when conducting my honours research, when many of my primary reference resources were unavailable. I had the resources (through my long-suffering parents) to purchase some of the texts I needed, but I am one of the lucky few. I turned to the internet for resources, and found much of value, but again, I am one of the lucky few. South Africa has notoriously high phone charges. I, at present, pay R2 a meg for my connection, and that is one of the cheapest options available. And as any academic making extensive use of online resources knows, the widespread suspicion with which the academy in general regards the internet makes it difficult to gain serious consideration for work which both makes extensive use of these resources, and which is distributed online. The world of conventional print maintains a strangle-hold on the academy, with the result that we are at the mercy of book publishers, distributors, and government. I take Mr. Manuel's point that publishers and distributers have some responsibility, but these people do, after all, have to make a living. Where, on the other hand, does the tax we pay on books go?
So how are South Africans supposed to deal with the huge cost of knowledge in this country? Perhaps it is time we started our own serious letter-writing campaign to get tax on books abolished. I, for one, am writing to suggest just such a strategy to all those magazines that goot me reading in the first place. And several more besides. Watch this space.