Tjatjarag: The middle class is not second class

2014-01-12 10:00

This is probably the toughest column I’ve written because it runs counter to my founding ideology of working class hegemony and supremacy.

I come from a home where a trade union, then the Garment Workers’ Union, filled many gaps. It gave me a student bursary and gave my dad medical care?–?a union filled the gaps for caring in an apartheid state.

As an adult South African, I understand today’s gaps?– they are mapped on to our landscape and the areas of need run deep. We write about them almost every week in City Press.

Meeting the needs of a rural and urban underclass must be the priority of any democratic government. How can it be otherwise? But, of late, I am finding a different citizen’s voice. It clamours: “What about me?” My payslip has a huge chunk cut out of it. It’s called the “Pravin gap” – named after Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan – it’s my tax dollar.

Until now, I haven’t minded the gap. Every month I give Gordhan what amounts to a welfare payment. If you’re like me, you pay for your own health, education, security and pension?–?all of which should ideally be funded by the state through taxes.

I’m happy to pay for a stable and largely peaceful country.

Stuff works, as my colleague Mondli Makhanya says when people whinge too much.

But now I want it to work better for me as a middle class person. That’s the scary part.

Until now, I’ve felt for political reasons and the commitment to social solidarity that us middle class people – with our smart cars, nice houses, medical aid and all our stuff – must just put up and shut up.

Or maybe that’s the message you get from the state. My mum lives in Mayfair, which is wonderful with its mix of new immigrant Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Somali communities.

But it’s a mess?–?too many people, terrible services and a councillor who lives elsewhere. The entire area I grew up in looks like a Pikitup tip.

When a group of us from our community visited the Joburg council offices, an arrogant young planner said it would not be “gentrified”. All we wanted was for it to be cleaned up and made safe.

But for him (and, I guess, his comrades in office) providing efficient service levels is equated with gentrification, middle class problems that count for nought.

This attitude is apparent across Joburg, where the city and its surrounds that create the largest chunk of our gross domestic product suffer from intolerable neglect.

How did it happen that almost no traffic lights work and we don’t complain? We treat intersections like four-way stops as if we are in downtown Baghdad or Juba in South Sudan.

We pay the people in charge of traffic lights salaries of more than R2?million a year and expect no service. And what about the potholes? We scoot around them and when they’re too big to miss, we burst our tyres and buy another set.

Storm water drains create havoc because they have suffered a decade of neglect.

What a tolerant bunch we are. That’s why the state thinks it can pile it on. The defiance campaign against e-tolls is a sign of a middle class that’s tired of being squeezed dry by a rapacious state.

On holiday in December, I noticed a tourism levy added to my hotel account (another tax), on top of the big fuel levy I pay to fill my car, on top of the VAT I pay on every purchase I make.

And there’s more to come when the national health insurance kicks in.

Only about five million South Africans pay tax and a relatively small proportion of those pay the lion’s share. You can squeeze a relatively small middle class only so much before it squeals and expects something in return. I’m going to start squealing.

I want decent municipal services, good roads, efficient call centres, hospitals that don’t carry health warnings and more excellent public schools. I’d love to know if you think this is a want too far. Or do you agree?

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