Small businesses are the ‘in thing’, right? Government wants them to soak up all the unemployment (big business apparently doesn’t do this anymore – they’re just in the business of lay-offs and down-sizing these days), and every second bank advert tells you how helpful they’re going to be when you come looking for start-up capital.
The truth of the matter, though, is that most small business activity in South Africa is ‘micro’ – one or two-man bands with little prospect of growth or breaking into the mainstream. They are hand-to-mouth affairs, with the majority of businesses not even being registered (either as close corporations, partnerships or companies). While most small businesses don’t think so, this question of registration is quite important – to government, anyway. It’s the only way that government can keep track of who’s doing what. And, of course, it puts businesses into the tax-paying loop, which the SA Revenue Services is quite keen to see more of. Which is one reason why so many small businesses avoid registering – or at least just ignore the option.
Another reason why businesses don’t register is that it costs money to pay an expert to do it for you. But why don’t they just register by themselves, you ask? There’s a whole government agency that can help them, with its own interactive web site and advisers just a phone call away. Or is it? The agency responsible – the Companies and Intellectual Property Registration Office (Cipro) – has made itself impenetrable, it seems, to the man in the street … which is presumably why there are so many companies around who will gladly register a business for you – at a price.
To test the Cipro system, I tried to register a CC myself – and failed. Three times! With three university degrees behind my name, I thought I might just manage to grasp their pages of instructions. I clearly overestimated myself. The first time, I admit, I went with common sense as a guide – not a good idea when dealing with a government agency – and posted them a cheque to pay for the registration. Bear in mind that informal businesses barely have bank accounts, let alone cheque books. But that is not allowed. In fact, were I to have tried this process a couple of years earlier, I would have had to find revenue stamps to pay for it! Apparently you buy these from SARS. I wouldn’t have known where to start looking.
My application came back with a cryptic note: "Methods of payment will be as follows: 1. Direct deposit or electronic transfer into the CIPRO bank account quoting your user code (see practice manual for detail [sic] instructions available from 26 February 2004). 2. Visa, Mastercard or American Express credit or debit card payment. 3. Cash."