When companies publish announcements just before Christmas, it's often because they've something to hide. Not so the South African Revenue Service (Sars), which belatedly published its annual Tax Statistics book on December 20 - all 316 pages of it. With Sars, the likely reason for the delay is a lack of capacity. And the picture the book paints is not pretty, reflecting both the ailing state of the economy and the erosion of the tax agency's enforcement capacity during the state-capture years.

The book has been published since 2008, becoming an essential resource for analysts of everything from income inequality to investment spending. The numbers are historical, and not always easy to interpret. But as next month's tough budget looms, the tax trends they detail are a telling pointer to SA's economic and fiscal metrics.

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