Roving Report – Moneyweb – The silent tax on SA’s middle class

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What, you may ask, has ‘The silent tax on SA’s middle class’ got to to with books in South Africa?

Well, it’s the argument put forward by Sasfin deputy chairman, as reported by Moneyweb today (9 Feb 2018) that ‘One of the biggest challenges facing South Africa is its inability to keep pace with the international advancement in technology …’

In my opinion, in addition to ‘inability’ one should also add ‘willingness’.

30 years ago this year I started in the book trade in the UK. Beginning as a callow assistant cleaning the loo, hoovering the carpets and slicing through the top layer of paperbacks with a Stanley knife when opening a box from Bertrams, to realising that in all the knowledge and experience I’ve acquired, I know very little.

But what I do know is that, when it comes to technology and business models, and attitudes towards technology and business models, the book trade in South Africa has chosen to live in the past.

In the autumn chill of October 1988, when serving a customer I could virtually guarantee that an in-print UK book would be available in about a week, and a current bestseller in two or three days.


Because of the BBIP monthly microfiche, TeleOrdering, wholesalers such as Bertrams and Gardners and a distribution system that saw most orders placed on a Monday (before 4pm!) arrive first-thing on the Wednesday or Thursday.

And by March 1994, when South Africa seemed dangerously close to all-out, country-wide, party-political violence I returned to Tonbridge (with an O!) where I found little had changed except that the technology had moved on: the bulky microfiche replaced by a computer and TeleOrdering, having served its purpose in its generation, giving way to cascaded orders to wholesalers.

Cascaded? If a title wasn’t available from one wholesaler, the software allowed for an order to be automatically ‘cascaded’ down to a second supplier.

And, of course, orders placed (before 4pm!) arrived the next morning. As a matter of course.

Just a few months later, in the heat of July compounded by the shop’s double glazing, little did I (or many others!) realise that a small Rivulet of a company in Seattle, selling a few books, would make it possible to place an order and receive it the same day.

Perhaps that company should consider investing in South Africa to provide this country with the choice of goods, level of service and pricing that has been denied its people for so long …