A tax revolt may be closer than Zille's critics realise

Western Cape premier Helen Zille Photo: Malherbe Nienaber
Western Cape premier Helen Zille Photo: Malherbe Nienaber

Where the state entity is unable to collect revenue because its moral right to collect is not recognised, it means there is a deliberate revolt to pay the state, writes Ralph Mathekga.

Now that the dust has almost settled after Helen Zille's latest bombshell it is perhaps an opportune time to try see if there is a drop of merit in the latest instalment of wisdom from the (former) DA matriarch.

Zille stoked fires when she threatened to organise a tax boycott if government continues its path of corruption. She was rebuked even by members of her own party, with others saying her proposal borders on treason. 

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Tax is a sensitive matter and let me get something out of the way. As a citizen, I pay my taxes including all penalties without troubling Sars. I am even willing to release my tax record if politicians would do the same, in the interest of transparency.

Now that we got that out of the way, let's talk about Zille's tax revolt as tax paying citizens!

Zille framed her question in a manner that lacks political tact. She just put it out there that a tax revolt is a justifiable cause if government misuse people's money. Her suggestion was a bit blunt; something that we've grown accustomed to from the premier recently. Not too long ago, she stated that not everything about colonialism was bad.

When it comes to the question of a tax revolt though, a nuanced version of Zille's proposal would be that government will lose the legitimacy to collect revenue if it continues on a path of corruption. Had Zille put it in a more diplomatic way, she would have said that a tax revolt sets in automatically when government is so corrupt that people no longer recognise its legitimacy to collect revenue.

While Zille has ambitions to organise such a tax revolt, she may not have to do much in that regard if government continues to be seen wasting public resources. Where government is presiding over rampant corruption, the reality is that its legitimacy to collect revenue is eroded. Consequently, people do not feel morally obligated to pay taxes. This will happen irrespective of whether Zille mobilises a tax revolt.

In the case of South Africa, government is already experiencing a gradual decline in terms of its legitimacy to collect revenue. Although this decline is not concentrated or centralised in a way that can be easily identified, there are a growing number of cases where communities have organised themselves in a way that they refuse to pass or pay revenue to the state or relevant government entity.

Where the state entity is unable to collect revenue because its moral right to collect is not recognised, it means there is a deliberate revolt to pay the state.

Failure by Sanral to collect toll fees for the use of Gauteng's highways is an example of a tax revolt by users. In relation to e-tolling, the state's legitimacy or authority to collect revenue is not being recognised, hence the non-payment.

Another case that shows the decline of government's legitimacy to collect revenue is seen in relation to rates and taxes owed to municipalities. There are numerous cases where rate payers have organised themselves in a way that they refuse to pass rates and taxes to the municipalities based on evidence of maladministration. There are several municipalities that have lost the right to collect revenue, indicating a successful tax revolt.

So, is Zille crazy to propose a tax revolt? The answer is no. Some level of tax revolt is already underway in pockets of our society. The main trigger point of such revolts is the decline of government's legitimacy to collect revenue. When that happens, government ends up having to use harsh measures to enforce its authority to collect revenue.  

Where Zille is wrong is in the belief that she can deliberately persuade people not to pay tax. Paying tax also comes with a moral obligation to act in the common interest of your fellow countrymen and women. When it comes to a duty such as paying tax, people will most likely follow their conscience rather than be persuaded by a politician with a clear motive to win an election, even if that politician is Helen Zille.

A tax or revenue revolt will only occur when the basis of the moral obligation to obey is shattered; when government cannot be said to enjoy legitimacy to collect and spend taxes in the public interest.

Therefore, a tax revolt in South Africa is closer to reality than denialist fantasies that have been hurled at Zille suggest. A tax revolt may be underway in different forms such as the refusal to pay rates and taxes to some municipalities.

If the term "tax revolt" is such a taboo, why then does South Africa have an organisation such as Outa, whose mandate is to fight against tax abuse? This means that the idea of a tax revolt is not too far from the minds of South Africans.

- Ralph Mathekga is a senior researcher at UWC's Centre for Humanities Research, and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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