A wealth tax is only a small start

2011-08-29 10:43

The problem with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s ­recent call for a wealth tax on white South Africans is not that it is, as an ­editorial in Business Day opined, “unconstitutional”.

The problem is that the call falls short by not bringing to the fore the strongest sociological reasons in its support.

For to fully grasp the intellectual and political merits of such a wealth tax requires one to take a step beyond the logic of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that Tutu chaired.

While the TRC ably unravelled many human rights violations that occurred during the apartheid era, it did not ­address the underlying nature of apartheid itself: the ­totality and the dynamics of structural racism.

In fact, in general, there has been a long-standing intellectual failure to engage racism as a structural phenomenon and to attempt to ­advance a more sophisticated normative model of how our democracy can come to terms with “race”.

It is, though, by recognising how the systemic patterns of racial ­injustice of the past continue to ­influence the present that the case for a wealth tax becomes ­incontrovertible.

Apartheid was not just, as F W de Klerk and others would have us ­believe, “an experiment that failed” and that should now be ­consigned to the history books, it also created and sustained a racist system of social structures that ­resulted in unjust enrichment for white people while exploiting and repressing the ­human potential of all blacks.

And this system did not die in 1994.­ Racism remains inherently and ­actively lodged in the structure of South African society.

In particular, the way in which societal institutions and structures continue to interlock and mutually result in racially unjust outcomes is evident in a wide range of statistical indicators – be it with respect to ownership and inheritance of productive resources,­­ ­barriers to mobility in the labour market, patterns of residential segregation or educational access and outcomes.

The debate then is not just – as Tutu argued in his talk at the ­University of Stellenbosch two weeks ago – about “self-hate”, ­gratuitous violence, reckless driving or “disgraceful” littering. It is more about: who owns the most land, who benefits from capital income, who is more likely to hold title to home ownership, who lives in the safer neighbourhoods, who goes to the top schools and universities, who gets the most rewarding jobs, and who has the best healthcare and is likely to live longer.

All these issues are causally connected and the answer in every case is simple: white South ­Africans. And the differences are stark, it is estimated that black ­babies have an infant mortality rate that is eight times higher than that for white ­babies; young African males without a tertiary qualification have a 60% chance of ­being unemployed; the average white household income is six times that of an African household; and, perhaps most dramatic of all, white South Africans own more than 70% of all assets in the country.

Such patterns of advantage and disadvantage are, given their structural inter-connectedness,­­ cumulative and reinforcing.

No surprise then,that in contemporary South Africa the rich are getting richer and the colour of poverty remains black.

One might object to all this by pointing to the growing black middle class, the black diamonds.

Black diamonds may sparkle, but only through refracted light. For here, income equality does not equate to net worth: black ­diamonds are less likely to have marketable assets and more likely to be financially overextended in their search for status.

How can all this be changed? How can such racial injustice be corrected? Clearly a wealth tax, in and of itself, is not the only answer; it would, however, be an important beginning – all the more so if introduced alongside a Basic Income Grant for those in poverty.

The main point to be made, though, is that when the totality of structural racism is grasped, who can really object to a wealth tax that is guided by the political imperative of the abolition of racial injustice and the creation of a truly non-racial society?

Is it not time for all South African citizens to live up to such ideals?

» Taylor is a professor in the political studies department at Wits University

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