The courts get called upon to decide some extraordinary things (often in custom duties matters). The Supreme Court of Appeal on 09 October 2023, for the purposes of the import tariffs under the Customs and Excise Act of 1964, came to the surprising conclusion that a bicycle frame and fork bear the essential character of a bicycle and are not merely parts or accessories of a bicycle. The conclusion is found in the following paragraph:

To our mind the distinction between that which constitutes a bicycle as a finished article on the one hand and what bears the essential character of a bicycle on the other hand is self-evident. In relation to the former the collection of the parts is transformed into a bicycle when assembled to produce a finished or complete product. By contrast, a collection of parts which do not produce a complete or finished product when assembled, may nevertheless have the essential character of the finished product. Differently put, whilst bicycle wheels, in conjunction with other parts, collectively make up a bicycle as a finished or complete article, their absence does not have the consequence that the remaining parts will necessarily lack the essential character of a bicycle.

This conclusion was reached despite the court referring in passing to a dictionary definition of a bicycle as a ‘vehicle consisting of two wheels held by a frame one behind the other, propelled by pedals and steered with handlebars attached to the front wheel’, which most people would agree with. They also distinguished an Australian decision that found if “one or both wheels are lacking whatever else remains will not have the essential character of a bicycle”. One often gets the impression in customs duty and tax cases that there is an unconscious wish to help the Treasury fill its coffers, which may be why the court strangely referred to the Constitution in coming to its conclusion.

These arguments get about as esoteric as the reasoning of the philosopher Plato regarding concrete beings acquiring their essence in relation to their “forms” as the essential models or paradigms of which other things are copies. He would have had difficulty in concluding that the frame and fork of a bicycle is its essence.

[Silverback Technologies CC and Others v Commissioner, South African Revenue Service [2023] ZASCA 128 (9 October 2023)]