Time for ‘haves’ to help rebuild SA
South Africa is a spectacular country, richly endowed with natural resources, breath-taking scenery and talented, generous and diverse people. There are enough of the good things that come from God’s bounty, enough for everyone.
In the 1990s we emerged from centuries of racial conflict, dispossession and segregation to forge a democratic nation. There was no retribution sought or taken.
No land grabs, and aside from BEE policies and land restitution process, no legislated physical redistribution of wealth.
Some termed the fact that we managed to transfer power as peacefully as we did a “miracle”. That is how divided we were.
Almost overnight, we became very high achievers. In 1994, we voted in great numbers to install our beloved Madiba as president, and set about forging a new nation on a set of fundamental values and principles that underscored our dignity and common humanity.
Do you remember the reconstruction and development programme, the RDP? Signboards sprouted in townships across the land, speaking of water delivery, new electricity connections and new communities.
We could see and feel and taste ourselves rebuilding, restoring, transforming.
Then, in 1995 we won the Rugby World Cup. In 1996, we unveiled our brand new constitution and Bill of Rights with rightful pride, our Truth and Reconciliation Commission got under way, and Bafana Bafana won the African Cup of Nations. The sky was the limit, and we knew it. We were living it.
Then we sat back to bask in our glory – and have allowed ourselves to be blown a little off course. We sat back and thought all was forgiven and was on track. We had set a good and righteous course… the rest would happen organically.
Of course, much has improved over the intervening years. We have reconnected to the world, on the sports fields, culturally, academically and economically. We have hosted rugby, cricket and the finest soccer world cup in history. Our government has built nearly 3 million homes and given them away to poor people. Millions more people have access to water, sewerage, electricity, roads, medical facilities and schools.
But the quality of life for many of the people who occupy these homes, who have benefited from a new electricity or water connection, or attend a new clinic or school, has insufficiently improved. Crime is rampant, babies are dying of preventable diseases, children are going to sleep on empty stomachs, and the standard of education at many of our schools is worrisome, indeed.
On the one hand, millions of people continue to lead poor quality lives, while on the other, we are a society of fantastic wines and restaurants, and expensive tastes in automobiles, wrist watches and real estate. Those who can afford it, have access to the best medical care in the world, and among the best schools.
As we have sat back and basked, we have become an increasingly skewed society, a society of more inequality instead of less. That is the first point I raised in my remarks at a book launch in Stellenbosch last week. The old haves continue to have, and they have been joined by some new haves. But most of our people remain have-nots. And, most of them are black.
The second point related to simple social values that we seem to have lost. In the old days, for example, no matter how poor we were, we kept our communities tidy. Today, there is litter all over the place. Why? Why do we drive so selfishly and recklessly, that we boast among the highest road accident rates in the world? Why is it necessary to exacerbate property crimes by torturing and killing the victims? Why do we brutalise our women to the extent we do? Why, when our unions go on strike, do they trash the streets and traumatise the people?
Are these all purely functions of poverty? I would say, no. Poverty does not make us callous and uncaring.
We are a deeply wounded people, all of us, black and white together. Some are crippled by poverty and shame, others by shame and guilt. We tend to respond with self-justification or indifference, when we should be responding with compassion and love.
Perhaps some of us are guilty of hoping that the euphoria of the 1990s would be sufficient to blow away our deep societal memories – scars – of generations of divisiveness, mistrust, fear, enforced impoverishment and legislated indignity. But the truth is, no human being emerges from such a furnace unmoved by the heat – just ask the people of Germany how difficult it has been to find one another after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and they were all more or less the same colour, spoke the same language and had been divided for less than 50 years.
As a society, we are guilty of taking each other for granted. In particular, I think richer South Africans are failing their poorer brothers and sisters. I think richer South Africans have failed to acknowledge the pain and the patience of poorer South Africans, who have for too long endured what pretty much amounts to a continuation of the socio-economic status quo that prevailed before the political change. And I think white South Africans have failed to acknowledge or respond to the magnanimity expressed in black South Africans’ willingness to forgive in the 1990s, to reconcile, to heal.
We speak about ubuntu, while failing to believe that we really are dependent on each other – not the government – to create the world we all want, a world in which we live and prosper together as the one family that we are.
Of course, the government could help very significantly. And I have suggested that one of the ways it could demonstrate it cares would be for cabinet ministers to sell their expensive cars.
But surely, we (the people) cannot just continue to sit back and blame the government for all of our woes. Yes, we pay our taxes and have every right to demand good and clean governance. But should we not all be alarmed by the widening wealth gap in our country? What does this mean for our children? At what point does the chasm grow so wide that the elastic band snaps?
We cannot ignore the fact that the overwhelming number of poor people in our country are black. Sure, we have some very wealthy black business people these days, but it is equally a fact that our stock exchange remains overwhelmingly in white hands. Most of our country’s productive land remains in white hands. Most white people stay in suburbs, while most black people continue to stay in inferior townships, informal settlements, or underdeveloped rural areas. Surely this is not sustainable?
In 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission compiled a set of recommendations to set down strong roots for the united nation we sought to become. Among the recommendations, as a form or reparation, was the creation of a wealth tax. At the time, the vast majority of people who would have fallen into the “wealthy” category were white, and a number of our white brothers and sisters were very supportive of the idea as a vehicle for the “haves” to demonstrate their support for our new, better society. Thus was the idea of a tax for whites, as a form of reparation raised.
What a magnificent gesture it would be, now, in the context of a global financial recession and widening wealth gap at home, were relatively wealthy South Africans to contribute to a central fund aiming to contribute to the national effort to uplift the poor. This could, in particular, create a mechanism for those individuals and companies who acquired their wealth during the years of apartheid, to pay one-off reparations.
This fund could be collected by the Receiver of Revenue, as a percentage of individual and/or company income tax. Or, perhaps, given the perceived levels of corruption in government, the people would be more confident were the fund administered privately. It could be statutory or it could be voluntary.
Imagine if a group of eminent South African bankers and business people came together with a plan for the administration of a national wealth fund – to be managed by captains of industry, not government. I have no doubt there are many South Africans who would want to contribute generously.
Imagine if we were creative enough to establish a system in which companies and individuals could receive formal recognition for contributing to such a fund to re-build our society? Where contributions could perhaps even be taken into consideration in BBBEE scorecards.
The value of the exercise extends way beyond the physical exchange of cash. It is a gesture in restoration and reconciliation; a vehicle to assuage pent-up guilt, to share, to show that we care; an opportunity to lay another brick in our road to a better society.
We are a generous people imbued with extraordinary magnanimity. We have basked in the glory of our 1990s achievements for too long. - The Star