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 DA.
It follows weeks of testimony, before a number of ongoing commissions of inquiry, that have unmasked astonishing levels of shameless state looting. Zille took to Twitter to suggest that in the absence of those responsible being prosecuted, a tax revolt might be the only way to root out government corruption.
Her ANC opponents were quick to call it treason. Her bemused DA critics sighed, sensitive to any further gaffes that hamper an official opposition that is 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 has been how to achieve that delicate balance of maximum financial extraction with minimal taxpayer resistance. It 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 revenue services worldwide routinely have powers to snoop, to interrogate and to seize. 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.
It is simple expediency that the same DA that supports the e-toll boycott is now sanctimoniously denouncing Zille. The DA hopes to benefit electorally, especially in Gauteng, from the government’s enforcement of these hugely unpopular taxes on motoring.
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.
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.
But in South Africa, as always, everything is complicated by race. A country with a population of 57million people, 16million of whom are on social assistance, is balanced on a tiny taxpayer base. A mere 4.9million 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 racial demographics, we can safely assume that this is because minorities contribute disproportionately to personal tax revenue.
Toss in the justified perception that the ANC is tolerant of freeloading by its supporters. For example, the ANC is extremely reluctant to countenance legal action against (black) township dwellers who refuse to pay for services, 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. 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. 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 proposals may be politically unwise and practically unworkable, but they are 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.
* William Saunderson-Meyer is a columnist with the Independent On Saturday. He is @TheJaundicedEye on Twitter.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.