Western Cape Premier Helen Zille's threat of organising a national tax boycott has drawn predictable ire from her foes, as well as some eye-rolling from within her own Democratic Alliance.
Zille’s tweet in this regard follows weeks of testimony before a number of ongoing commissions of inquiry, which has unmasked mind-boggling levels of shameless state looting. Zille suggests that in the absence of those responsible being prosecuted soon, a tax revolt might be the only way for ordinary citizens to force the government to root out corruption within its ranks.
Her African National Congress opponents were quick to call it treason. Her bemused DA critics sighed in despair, sensitive to any further gaffes that might hamper an official opposition struggling to hit its election-year stride, largely because it keeps shooting itself in the foot.
Government fears of taxpayer resistance are engrained. Hence, to those Jews reluctant to pay Roman taxes, the Biblical injunction to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”.
The challenge for governments throughout history has been how to achieve that delicate balance of maximum financial extraction with minimal taxpayer resistance. Lest we forget, the American Revolution was sparked by some trifling British duties on tea.
To accomplish this involves the state emphasising its legitimate right — for the common good, of course — to a share of your earnings, while having ready behind its back an array of legal clubs to ensure swift compliance by the recalcitrant.
It’s no accident that tax collectors worldwide routinely have powers to snoop, to interrogate and to seize, that are envied by their mainstream police colleagues. When it comes to dealing with taxpayer resistance and evasion, ringing human rights declarations about the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof go out the window.
Nevertheless, there is at least one recent example in South Africa of a successful tax revolt — the boycott by motorists of the Gauteng e-tolls, which has brought the toll consortium to its financial knees. It’s a boycott that’s been enthusiastically endorsed by the DA, as well as by the ANC provincial leadership in defiance of national ANC policy.
The DA hopes to benefit electorally, especially in Gauteng, from the government’s enforcement of these hugely unpopular taxes on motoring. It is simple expediency that the same DA which supports the e-toll boycott is now now sanctimoniously denouncing Zille.
Similarly expedient is the ANC, which is tolerant of its tripartite alliance and provincial party structures stridently denouncing policies that all these entities have agreed to at a national level. It’s a sleight of hand of that its dozy supporters seem not to notice.
The mechanics of disagreement in a democracy are simple. You have the vote, exercise it. Thereafter, you are morally bound to live with the policies and laws enacted by the majority, no matter how much you might disagree with them. You generally don’t boycott and burn in peevish defiance of the popular will.
But in SA, as always, everything is complicated by race. A country with a population of 57m people, 16m of whom are on social assistance, is balanced on top of a tiny taxpayer base. A mere 4.9m individuals are estimated to contribute 97% of all personal tax.
It is no coincidence that the SA Revenue Service, uniquely of all the government agencies, has never to my knowledge publicly analysed this revenue stream by race. Since this a government obsessed with the "correct" racial demographics, we can safely assume that this omission is because minorities contribute disproportionately to personal tax revenue, especially in the case of self-employed provisional taxpayers.
Then let’s toss in the justified perception that the ANC is tolerant of freeloading by its supporters. For example, it is extremely reluctant to countenance legal action against (black) township dwellers who refuse to pay for services, or (black) municipalities whose lack of payment has helped bankrupt Eskom, whereas it would back rapid retaliation against suburban (minority) ratepayers who tried the same thing.
Further, the government tolerates significant tax evasion in the (black) minibus taxi industry, as well as periodically pandering to the violent demands of the taxi owners for amnesty for traffic fines. And finally, it demonstrably has not acted against ANC cadres who are corrupt.
Fuelled by frustration over these matters, there is in fact already a tax revolt taking place in SA. Cash-in-hand work, buying illicit cigarettes, moving all possible investment funds overseas, as well as the non-payment of e-tolls, TV licences and traffic fines — these are all forms of taxpayer resistance.
Zille’s idea for a tax boycott may be politically unwise and practically unworkable — for this is an insurrection that the ANC must and will do everything in its considerable powers to nip in the bud — but it is well-timed. It’s a reminder to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government that there is a large and growing gatvol factor with which the ANC will have to contend if it doesn’t change its ways.
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