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.