Take heed of Tutu tax

Image by Sara GouveiaThe recent stir caused by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s suggestion of a wealth tax for privileged South Africans should not overshadow the merits of this proposal, writes FANIE DU TOIT.

Tutu’s comments came at the book launch of well-known theologian John De Gruchy’s The Humanist Imperative, which focuses on restoring humanity and dignity to South Africans, and echoes one of the TRC’s most discussed proposals: that of a once-off wealth tax as a gesture of reconciliation. Subsequent debate has explored questions of whether such a tax would be levied on white South Africans or on all affluent citizens, and if in fact the state is the best vehicle to administer such a gesture.

Tutu’s essential contention has been that our reconciliation process is unfinished. Its completion requires more than a ‘business as usual’ attitude from those who live in affluence alongside fellow citizens in desperate need. ‘How is it possible that in such a well-resourced country so many people go to bed hungry at night?’ Tutu asks.

The counter-remark that income tax is a sufficient contribution to alleviating the plight of disadvantaged citizens is simply disingenuous. That a larger proportion of white South Africans is able to pay taxes can without doubt be ascribed to our apartheid past. Paying tax is a legal obligation and without it to bolster the economy white South Africans would suffer together with all other citizens.

White interest groups, including the FW de Klerk Foundation and Solidarity, have described Tutu’s call as unconstitutional, an indictment on the humanity of white South Africans, and a potential catalyst for repolarising society. My questions to these organisations are simple. What alternatives can you propose that would promote reconciliation and a more inclusive, fair society? Do you think that South Africans have really reconciled, and that those of us who have benefitted from the past are now free once again to get on with our lives despite rampant and growing inequality in our society?

I do not doubt Tutu’s intentions for one moment. He has never been interested in humiliating white South Africans; rather, he has prioritised rehabilitating the humanity of white South Africans. His philosophy is surprisingly uncomplicated: the dignity of black and white South Africans cannot be restored in isolation from each other. We need each other for mutual healing and our ultimate survival. Our unique past requires exceptional measures, not only in economic terms, but also as far as our collective psyche is concerned, in order to restore this mutuality which apartheid sought to nullify.

Tutu has also maintained that ‘bygones do not in fact become bygones, but always return to haunt us’, referring to phenomena such as self-hate, violence and a reckless disregard for life. ‘We thought that things would improve with time, but we were wrong,’ said Tutu.

The essence of this message is that all of us – black and white – need healing. And for healing to occur we need each other; without it none of us have a future in this country. In Tutu’s view, a wealth tax would be a significant gesture that could become a catalyst for healing.

The failure to understand this message on the part of white interest groups is a tragic missed opportunity. In the years immediately following the political transition, white South Africans have largely been left in the lurch by their leaders’ half-hearted approach to nation-building. This has contributed to a significant sense of alienation from the rest of the population. A new gesture, whether in the form of a wealth tax or something else, is arguably necessary to end this sense of isolation.

It’s time we learnt from our past. In 2001 a group of white South Africans launched the ‘Home-for-All Campaign’ (more), which worked to persuade members of this group to simply acknowledge – not even apologise for – the source of their privilege by contributing a symbolic amount to a centrally administered fund. This promising initiative was endorsed by the entire Springbok team, but the Sunday paper, Rapport, torpedoed it with a headline that read something like, ‘Whites required to apologise and pay up’.

This Campaign drew an important distinction between ‘acknowledgement’ and ‘apology’ – one that the Rapport clearly failed to notice. When black South Africans ask for acknowledgement and a symbolic gesture, what white South Africans hear is a demand for contrition and payment. But there is a huge difference. Our European protestant roots may have something to do with how we’ve understood, or failed to understand, the request – we always seem unable to hear what black South Africans are actually saying.

Reconciliation demands exceptional gestures that challenge conventional ways of doing things. Why is acknowledging privilege so important? Recognising facts honours and empowers others as well as one’s self, and can lead to effective action. A culture of lying and eternal confession leads to powerlessness and permanent paralysis. The unique once-off tax would therefore present white South Africans with the opportunity to take a proactive step to making a difference in the lives of fellow citizens.

For this reason it would perhaps also be better if the state didn’t manage such a tax. Greater impact would be achieved if prominent white South Africans in sports, politics, culture and business endorsed the cause and gathered up resources. Support of this kind could also lead to smaller local initiatives, hopefully to the benefit of thousands or even millions. Launching this initiative would also send a profound message to those whose lives have not changed much in the new political dispensation.

Even if we disagree with the historical grounds for restitution, the pragmatic ones cannot be ignored for much longer. If recent events in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa have taught us anything, it is that social inequality is not sustainable. The material well-being of all South Africans is becoming increasingly intertwined with that of the most marginalised in society. Seen from this perspective, an appropriate gesture of recognition and commitment is also an investment in a better and shared future. All South African ‘haves’ – black and white – should know this. And given South Africa’s history of racial privilege, it is morally incumbent on white South Africans to take this first step.

Dr du Toit is executive director of the IJR.

6 Responses to Take heed of Tutu tax

  1. Costa Gazidis

    To continue to classify people by “race” is merely an extension of racism. We must all be classified as “Human” and then make sure that the very affluent make big contributions to the tax bill which must then be built on closing the inequality gap.
    The new elite have been proved to be just as preditory as the previous one, so cannot be exempted from contribution because of their so-called ‘blackness’. We then need a new social order that will prevent the emergence of billionaires and encourage the development of collectives.

  2. Ben Khumalo-Seegelken

    When in Germany, where I live, some twenty years ago a similar solidarity-tax was introduced to help shoulder the unification of the country that had been torn apart since the end of the Second World War in 1945, I was one of those who welcomed the introduction of this special income-tax wholeheartedly, am still paying it with pleasure and would give even more for that purpose, if I should and could. With regard to South Africa today: Those of us who – on what reason whatsoever – can afford more than others, could on their own accord organise self-taxation that would enable them to give and share directly with those who have less or nothing. Desmond Tutu and many of us have always lived in such solidarity-networks – have always been sharing the little we earn and would gladly encourage others to join hands! That is how I understand Desmond Tutu’s call today.

  3. Carolin

    I echo Ben’s sentiments for a type of solidarity tax: There was another type of solidarity tax introduced after the reunification of East and West. Since 1991 all Germans earning above a certain income paid an additional tax of initially 7.5% and now 5.5% of their income called ‘reunification or solidarity tax’. The tax aimed at financing the reunification and later was extended to finance grants to poorer countries in the European Union and other international operations. All Germans had to pay the tax without any exception – east and west.

    The tax was not necessarily welcomed. The history of erecting the wall and the separation of East and West dated back more than 30 years. Shortly after the initial historical euphoria of unification, its cost became one of the biggest obstacles between people of the East and the West. Initially, the tax did not bring people closer together but rather had the reverse effect on perceptions about ‘each other’. Yet there is little doubt that the reconstruction and development of East Germany has contributed to the position that Germany occupies today, as Europe’s financial leader. Interestingly, earlier this year, the German constitutional court ruled that the tax is still constitutional and should remain in place.
    The discussions regarding the ‘wealth tax’ consisted largely of finger pointing. It was all about who has to pay the tax – ‘the Rich’? ‘The Whites’? ‘The older generation’? which is going backwards in history and encourages thoughts in rather dividing categories.
    A solidarity tax in South Africa gives the current debate a different spin and moves away from classifications. It brings the caring humanness back into the discussion. By claiming ubuntu as a form of social solidarity, we say that caring for others is in our genes and it is not about blaming and shaming. It is an opportunity to actually be who we are. Applying the term ‘solidarity’ sends out the message: “Because we care about our fellow South African…’
    It does not take much to imagine why living in a more equal society will make all of us happier. The book The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett claim that inequality lowers life experience. The book also states that ‘It is the experience of low social status and low self-esteem that encourages violence, obesity, teenage pregnancy, drug use, and so on; and it is the fear that drives consumerism, longer working hours and other economic dysfunctionalities of unequal societies.’
    To implement a solidarity tax through a jointly managed fund by private sector, government and civil society could be one of the solutions instilling trust and confidence in citizens that the money will be spent in the allocated manner.
    A solidarity tax of this nature will assist South Africa to become more equal. It will not perform miracles but it may assist to rectify some injustices of the past, contribute to closing the economic and social gap, and contribute to our well-being.

  4. Ben Khumalo-Seegelken

    I thank you, Carolin, for your enlightening and encouraging contribution.

    If we were to start implementing Desmond Tutu’s proposal, we would by so doing, of course, not be re-inventing the wheel: In almost every family throughout our country there are men and women who give, take and share without making an issue out of it. Many others make their contribution as tax payers and enable the state to live up to its obligations towards the community.

    These two sectors of our community – the informal and the formal, the private and the public – could together be the corner-stone of a solidarity-system in the true sense of ubuntu, based on the understanding that everyone accepts the necessity of making available just and affordable living conditions for everybody at long-term within the reaches of the economic power we have today and the wealth we have inherited. A small range of short-term projects could be focused on – for example: a water-supply scheme for certain rural residential-areas; subsidies for vocational training and attainment of skills in agricultural, artisan, commercial and industrial professions most likely to secure adequate living income and to sustain economic growth; adult education in cooperation with trade-unions and other interest groups to enhance in-service training at all levels and to enable interested individuals from outside formalized educational institutions to qualify for alternative occupations and augment their prospects to stable employment opportunities).

    Such a solidarity-scheme could function experimentally at a small-scale for a start and set a model for implementation at a large-scale later. Pioneer-communities – in Gauteng, in the Western Cape or elsewhere – could take the lead and set the pace. South Africa has, undoubtedly, many suitably qualified men and women who could cooperate in developing Desmond Tutu’s proposal into a viable public project in tune with the best intentions of our Constitution. Such an “uBuntu Scheme” could be an initiative of great effectiveness that South Africans in their diversity all over the country would take in their own interest as a young democracy and as an investment in a peaceful future.

  5. Mlungisi Dlodlo

    Carolin’s contribution gives me the outline I need to locate our questions and proposals in a broader context. Thank you!

    The private sector has, of course, by and large lived in networks in which giving and sharing are the most basic principle at all. A quantitatively small part of the private sector, however, with very few exceptions been living and is still living in networks that had inherited or accumulated wealth or very often acquired under questionable conditions better economic opportunities exclusively for itself – to say the least. How can these two parts of the private sector learn to grow together in a giving and sharing community at long term? That is the question at stake – learning to grow together!

    Whilst I subscribe to the interpretation of Desmond Tutu’s proposal as a call to solidarity – to an ‘uBuntu Solidarity Scheme’ as Ben Khumalo terms it -, I am of the opinion that, if certain amounts of property and wealth that had been acquired or inherited prior to a particular date – let us say, the date the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was published – would be taxed for purposes of contributing towards reducing inequality, eliminating poverty and enabling the two parts of the private sector to start learning to grow together, our country would at last be about to truly become a post-apartheid society. That starting point could for example entail acquisition of land by the state especially for rural residential projects and enabling former labour-tenants and the growing masses of shack-dwellers and their children to at last afford living under just as reasonable conditions as everybody else and to become part of that just social and economic system our Constitution aims to accomplish. For that purpose I maintain: Voluntary civic commitment would not suffice; compulsory regulatory measures would prove more effective.

    Desmond Tutu’s proposal could open doors and lead to wider horizons: Solidarity tax would do a great deal to put individuals and interest-groups from the two parts of our private sector on a common platform, install in them the notion and give them the opportunity of active participation in reducing inequality and eliminating poverty in our post-apartheid venture in the process of giving and sharing. What are we waiting for?

  6. Mlungisi Dlodlo

    Carolin’s contribution helps me locate our questions and proposals in a broader perspective. Thank you.

    The private sector has, of course, by and large lived in networks in which giving and sharing are the most basic principle at all. A quantitatively small part of the private sector, however, with very few exceptions been living and is still living in networks that had inherited or accumulated wealth or very often acquired under questionable conditions better economic opportunities exclusively for itself – to say the least. How can these two parts of the private sector learn to grow together in a giving and sharing community at long term? That is the question at stake – learning to grow together!

    Whilst I subscribe to the interpretation of Desmond Tutu’s proposal as a call to solidarity – to an ‘uBuntu Solidarity Scheme’ as Ben Khumalo terms it -, I am of the opinion that, if certain amounts of property and wealth that had been acquired or inherited prior to a particular date – let us say, the date the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was published – would be taxed for purposes of contributing towards reducing inequality, eliminating poverty and enabling the two parts of the private sector to start learning to grow together, our country would at last be about to truly become a post-apartheid society. That starting point could for example entail acquisition of land by the state especially for rural residential projects and enabling former labour-tenants and the growing masses of shack-dwellers and their children to at last afford living under just as reasonable conditions as everybody else and to become part of that just social and economic system our Constitution aims to accomplish. For that purpose I maintain: Voluntary civic commitment would not suffice; compulsory regulatory measures would prove more effective.

    Desmond Tutu’s proposal could open doors and lead to wider horizons: Solidarity tax would do a great deal to put individuals and interest-groups from the two parts of our private sector on a common platform, install in them the notion and give them the opportunity of active participation in reducing inequality and eliminating poverty in our post-apartheid venture in the process of giving and sharing. What are we waiting for?

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