Haves of all races could do more for the have-nots

18 August 2011 - 02:42 By Brendan Boyle

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has always spoken more from the heart than most people would dare, whether it is to greedy government ministers, errant parishioners, the needy poor or the wealthy elite.

He reads, travels and networks widely. But in the end, he is inclined to tell it as he sees it on any given day and not as a more measured analyst might, with the ifs, ands and buts that defuse a strong opinion.

So I have sympathy for his apparently unrehearsed suggestion of a voluntary solidarity tax to be paid by whites in recognition of the advantages that apartheid gave them.

With the first children born into a free South Africa due to write matric next year and set off into the adult world, it is frustrating to all who would have liked to have given them a different country to explore that so little progress has been made.

The common lament that nothing has changed is wrong. Apart from the priceless quality of life that comes with freedom from the burdens of oppressing or being oppressed, there are huge dormitory towns where none was before, water and electricity flow where they didn't and a substantial black middle class is starting to define its own culture and values in a space previously forbidden to black people.

These are significant gains. But the desolation of poverty with no prospect of escape, which is the future for so many of the young adults we will release next year, challenges all of us who have more than they do to think about our role in such an unequal country.

I think that is what Tutu was doing when he made the tax proposal.

The pace of transformation is too slow and appears to be slowing under President Jacob Zuma's aimless rule. The rich continue to get richer. The poor grow in numbers, but not wealth, and Tutu gives way to his disappointment with a thought-provoking challenge.

Making whites pay more money is not the answer, however. Like everyone in the middle and upper classes, they pay enough already.

The share of our combined national output that went to the state peaked at 27.6% in 2007, just before the recession hit, and is now around 25% of gross domestic product.

Only one in eight South Africans earns enough to have to register as a taxpayer, and one in 10 is rich enough to be eligible to actually fill in an assessment. The flip side of that privilege is, of course, that six million personal taxpayers contribute a third of the money the government takes to run the country for all its 48 million people.

Given that they earn most of the income that funds private consumption, the same group contributes most towards the 27% share of national revenue gathered from the 14c that the government takes as VAT from every rand spent on shopping and services.

With the additional burdens of school fees to buy children out of a collapsed state education system, medical insurance to escape the state's ill-managed hospitals, security costs to protect themselves in an inadequately policed society, fuel levies and new road tolls to subsidise the restoration of roads allowed to fall into disrepair, a middle-class South African of any race pays about half of his income in direct and indirect taxes.

Social solidarity is already built into this system. Close to 16 million people - four for every person who fills in a tax form - receive about R140-billion from that tax revenue in the form of small grants that keep them and many others alive.

The better answer, surely, would be a change of attitude among the many who have reasonable wealth and the many who are quickly acquiring it.

If we could, as a society, ensure that the rands allocated to poverty relief and eradication are used largely for that purpose, we would crack the problem.

If everyone, including politicians, teachers, nurses, administrators, traders, investors and business owners, would accept just a reasonable wage for the work they do - and do the work they are paid for - we could be well on the way to building a society that would not need to discuss a special solidarity tax.

That is something we could learn from Tutu himself.

He lives well but modestly in a middle-class suburb of Cape Town, drives a good but ageing car, uses the privilege of private healthcare to manage the prostate cancer he lives with, and gives of his time to good causes.