Helen Zille’s put the cat amongst the pigeons again. Last weekend she announced her intention to lead a tax revolt if the ANC is voted back into government after May.
Social media had a field day, with the loonies on both sides frothing at the mouth and tearing at their leashes to get stuck in.
The right, mostly white, were gleeful; the left were agog and aghast, some stopping just short of calling it treason.
Obviously, it is a crime not to pay your taxes - although there’s a helluva lot of people who blithely ignore that, including a whole bunch of underground cigarette manufacturers and smugglers who fund the EFF, to say nothing of the countless municipalities that are functionally bankrupt because of non-payment for services - but whether you agree with Zille or not, she’s focused all of us - especially politicians in government - on the inescapable and often uncomfortable link between political and economic power. You need the votes to form a government, but if you don’t have the money you can’t do anything - as most failed states the world over will tell you.
The two don’t always come from the same pool.
South Africa’s in a particularly dire space at the moment; unemployment at critically high levels; a bloated public service and a third of the country dependent on grants.
None of which leaves much room for the exchequer - in fact, thanks to a weak economy and a decade of kleptocracy, we are already borrowing to pay the civil service salary bill, before looking to bail out the SOEs.
You wouldn’t necessarily see this in the election manifestoes which are unashamedly, in some cases desperately, populist, so much so that the contribution of taxpayers is not just ignored, but a considerable section of them are treated with contempt bordering on existential threat.
It’s not fashionable to actually consider that, which is why the responses have been so predictable.
Withholding taxes is illegal, but so too are violent service delivery protests where the little amenities that do exist are destroyed.
The difference is that when everybody engages in the illegal activity it doesn’t render it any less illegal, but it does make it increasingly difficult to bring them to justice.
It will be difficult to get people to participate in a tax revolt, it’s almost impossible for normal wage earners and technically awkward for businesses and the response by government will be immediate and brutal - as you would expect. But if it reaches a critical mass of disobedience then we are in uncharted territory altogether - as Sanral knows all too well with the ongoing ecumenical disobedience campaign that’s brought it to its knees, and divided government and the tripartite alliance too.
It doesn’t have to get there, in fact it shouldn’t have got as far as this - the fact that it has exposed the political hucksters writing cheques without ever thinking how they’d cash them. It’s easy to fix, there’s still time, but that would require leadership, something that’s in very short supply at the moment.
* Kevin Ritchie is a media consultant. He is a former journalist and newspaper editor.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.