Lots of angry tut-tutting at Tutu

2011-09-03 00:00

TIS the season to be unreasonable. In South Africa that can be any time of the year, as reflected in the barrage of poison arrows directed at Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu recently.

Tutu has infuriated many by resuscitating the idea — first mooted during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings of the mid-nineties — of a tax on “white” wealth, as reparation for apartheid. The Arch proposes a once-off tax, perhaps a “quite piffling” one percent on stock holdings, arguing that it would be an “extraordinary symbol” of whites’ commitment to reconciliation.

There are a slew of obvious problems. For starters, it would be unconstitutional to single out one community for reparation payments, given that not only whites, nor all whites, supported apartheid. That whites should voluntarily agitate for such a tax, as Tutu suggests, is either staggering naiveté or the calculated ingenuousness of a mischievous churchperson.

Nevertheless, what was something of an off-the-cuff comment by Tutu, has for the past fortnight filled the blogosphere with indignation and vitriol, not only from whites but also from other minorities, who can recognise the thin edge of a wedge when they see one. 

Rhoda Kadalie, writing in Die Burger, savaged Tutu for his “inane rant”, which was “racist … irresponsible … obscene … and … beggars belief”.

For a columnist who mostly bares her teeth in support of the Democratic Alliance with its proclaimed belief in free speech, this bitter excoriation of Tutu for daring an unpopular view, is surprisingly intolerant.

She does rightly point out that whites already carry a heavy tax burden and are voluntarily responsible for “vast pockets of social development” that should be the responsibility of the government. Less convincingly, Kadalie declares that Tutu is picking on whites when most of the black elite “enjoy their ill-gotten wealth with rank consumerism”, instead of uplifting their impoverished brethren.

This is bare-knuckle stuff, close to the bone. Albeit unintentionally, such over-wrought refrains of indignation from the privileged support Tutu’s contention that reconciliation is still a long way off.

It also misses the mark. There are two issues. The first is whether whites should undertake some voluntary act of atonement for apartheid. The second is whether race reconciliation should have a financial component.

The former is extremely complicated, given that the white community is far from homogenous and significant numbers of whites opposed apartheid. Following the advent of democracy there were a number of self-flagellation charters, which contrite whites signed to confess their culpability and remorse — all without any discernible effect on race politics.

The second issue, that of a reparation levy, is independent of confession and forgiveness. It is inescapably true that the asset base of the white community benefited directly from —  within living memory — depriving others of property and the right to trade to acquire property. This has to be put right and it is in everyone’s interest that it be put right soon. Unfortunately, our government is too incompetent and/or corrupt to do so, as reflected in the mired land-reform process.

That does not and should not prevent whites and the wider middle-class from establishing an independent entity which with probity and efficiency could utilise a percentage of the white asset base to give their black fellow citizens a hand out of the mire. The idea is similar to that flighted some years back by Business Day editor Peter Bruce, regarding the corporate asset base. 

The trouble, of course, is that if the reparation levy is voluntary, only a tiny minority will contribute. And if it is to come from a compulsory tax, the government will want to control it. Nor will the ANC want any other entity achieving what it has failed lamentably to do.

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