About those statues

A LIFELONG suspicion of reverence for kings and queens, politicos and establishment figures informs my response to the statue debacle. I’m bemused. I simply cannot understand people who are so overwrought by the threat to a piece of metal that they’ll chain themselves to the statue.

By me, the whole lot can be melted down, including Queen Vic, who presided over an era in which some of my own forefathers and mothers (I’m, what, maybe a quarter Irish in genetic heritage, somewhere back in time?) were constantly characterised as a savage, dumb, ape-like, criminal ‘inferior race’. Check out this cartoon, one of many such from Victorian England.

The statue-huggers say: “It’s our history,” but it’s not – Jan van Riebeeck and all who followed him are not going to go up in a puff of smoke just because the statue has gone.

The rich, complex, violent, embarrassing, foolish, inspirational, wild roller-coaster ride that is our recent history will remain, all that binds together in an awkward dance every shade of skin colour and every kind of genetic, linguistic and cultural past, including Khoisan, Greek, Malay, Vhavhenda, Irish, amaZulu… (And the USA calls itself a melting pot!) And if they remain – will that solve the immense problems we have?

Commentators with gravitas, like Professor Jonathan Jansen, have urged us to use this moment for serious discussions about those problems, and I agree. We have to think seriously about symbols and what they mean, and how they can hurt, and how to draw the sting of that hurt. And about the things we say and the things we do that cause hurt.

But without statesman-like leadership from any political party, I doubt we’ll get that. (Dear intellectuals, why don’t you take point on this? There’s a thought! Convene a Codesa on symbols, pain, anger, injustice, fear, exclusion, identity and loss thereof, and get all of us talking to each other.)

Instead, important symbols as they are, the statues serve as low-hanging fruit, a convenient punch-bag for young people to expend their energy on when faced with the frustration of an economic system which seems almost completely unresponsive to political changes (at last count, less than 15 of the top 100 CEOs in South Africa were black, and only two were women, which means the commanding heights of the economy continue to be littered with names like Mark, Ian, Chris, Pieter, David, Herman, and, of course, Whitey).

If I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d suggest that some politicos encouraged this campaign, knowing the dangers of an angry, exasperated youth which finds itself on the wrong side of a widening inequality donga. Wipe out all symbols of colonialism! A few green paint or faeces-flinging incidents can quickly cow authority into agreeing to remove the offending figures, et voilà! We can get terribly excited that we’ve won a battle, oh how powerful we are!

But does it shrink the power and money gap? Of course not. So here’s a suggestion for what you could turn your energies to next, dear youth: tax justice. Why not campaign to ensure that those Marks and Davids and Pieters who head up multinational companies and take home huge incomes (the top ten ranged from R48m to R122m in 2014) actually pay the tax they should to the economy from which they profit? Note: not the tax they can get away with in terms of the law; the tax that is fair and just. Hence tax justice.

Academics working in the sector will tell you that multinationals (such as mining giants) routinely use every mechanism in their power to reduce the tax they pay to the countries in which they are sited and where they get the commodities such as oil, gold, diamonds and platinum which go on to make them very, very rich indeed. 

Tax evasion costs African governments an estimated $38.4bn per year – more than half of what governments in sub-Saharan Africa spend on health care, Oxfam said [in 2013] because of what Oxfam calls a ‘broken tax system’ that allows multinational corporations to avoid paying taxes in the African countries where they actually do business...”

“South Africa is estimated to lose tens of billions of rand annually from the abuse of transfer pricing by multinational groups, but South African Revenue Service (SARS) large business centre group executive Sunita Manik said on Wednesday that transfer pricing itself was accepted practice globally and could not be banned.

“One way in which transfer pricing can be abused is when a local company sells its goods or services to an offshore associate in a low-tax jurisdiction, or sells them at a marked discount. ‘The issue with transfer pricing is that it is not outright illegal, though increasingly a lot of it is becoming morally reprehensible,’ Ms Manik said.” (Business Day, September 4 2014)

At least one local academic and thinker in KwaZulu-Natal has written a paper on tax justice recently, to my knowledge. It’s worth investigating. You might shake those commanding heights just a little, and you could drive a new tax system that works to reduce inequities instead of increasing them.

Just a thought. Just one idea for targeting the inequities you face, among many. Use it, don’t use it.

It’s up to you.

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

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