South Africa’s middle class is not easily moved to anger, perhaps because anger requires passion, and passion requires a mind and heart, operating roughly in tandem. It is almost constantly irritable, of course; but pure, white-hot rage seems to be quite beyond the scope of the great Afro-Tuscan and Cape-Venetian wastelands that signify our economic dawn and cultural dusk.
Which is not to say that it isn’t sometimes faintly cross, perhaps when talking about the Sluddun of the Propiddy Mawket, or about the blex or the whaats or the cullids or the Chaaneez, or any of its other compatriots whom it delights in worrying about. Indeed, it regularly waves its arms over its head in agitation over The Crahm; but these outbursts are short-lived, as thrusting fists into the air makes it difficult to change from SuperSport 1 to SuperSport 2, and the remote gets awfully dinged by the brass-and- raffia Rangoon Nights-themed ceiling fan overhead.
Until last week, in fact, it seemed that nothing would ever make the middle class truly angry. Not the poverty it fights by giving Wellington and Elsie its holed socks, nor the pandemic it helps battle by wearing a red ribbon to pilates, nor the stone-age education being dripped into the brains of its future kitchen staff. But then the government went and talked about taxing cars. Big cars. Powerful cars. Its cars.
Oh — mah — gard.
Perhaps the proposed tax on four-wheel-drive cars and SUVs is a good idea. Perhaps it isn’t. Without knowing anything about either economics or the politics of environmentalism, one suspects that neither are elegant or efficient arguments for squeezing the militantly mobile. But whether or not it can be justified politically, it is a tax that is long overdue and one that should be hailed with ululation from the mountaintops, because it is a tax that strikes a small but well-aimed blow at the polished granite heart of the materialistic wasteland that the middle class is sleepwalking into.
Of course, no tax will take cars off our roads. There are reportedly eight million in this country, which means there’s a set of wheels for almost every South African adult who doesn’t live in poverty. We are tar- fetishists of American proportions, petrol-zealots high on unleaded, drunk with grunt, glued to the upholstery by the sweat of our butt-cracks.
No, numbers cannot be fought easily; but brutality can. And there is almost nothing more psychologically brutal than a 4×4 or an SUV. The mawble-and-porms brigade who flooded the white and Afrikaans media last week with outrage almost uniformly pointed to taxis, and they have a shaky point. But at least the taxi drivers, holding their rides together with chewing-gum and willpower, are honest about their aggression.
To listen to SUV enthusiasts is to hear the voice of the American handgun lobby, the United States military, the Midwestern militias. Safety, it whines, it’s all about safety and protecting the little ones. It is the same perverted nanny tone one finds in the helpful safety hints stencilled all over the fuselages and wings of B-52 bombers — no step, keep clear, danger, caution, hot parts — as if a sprained ankle or singed fingertip carry equal weight to the nukes slung down in the belly of the beast.
But more intriguing than the appeals to safety were the allegations of envy levelled at those mooting the tax. ‘Have-nots” was a phrase used with startling contempt in a couple of angry letters to News24.com; ‘sour grapes” was there too. ‘Jealousy makes you nasty!” declared one mouth-breather, apparently drawing on the wisdom gained in nine years of primary school, seven of high school, and five and a half years of undergraduate study.
It was illuminating, but pitiful. The new rich will never understand that all expensive cars are parodies of themselves, and all deny the class their owners have tried to buy. A 5-series BMW says, ‘I couldn’t afford a 7-series.” A Landcruiser says, ‘I fink dat my neighbour are got a lank big tollie, and I are got a lank small tollie.” A Range Rover says only ‘Golly!” but speaks volumes: of white knuckles, deferred orgasms, renewed prescriptions, forced regurgitations, disguised nosebleeds and voiceless sobs into the shoulders of expensive prostitutes.
If only they knew how they looked, how the fantasy is exploded every time the true, representative driver of the SUV goes out on her errands: the tiny Stepford wife, ring-encrusted fingers spread desperately around the gigantic tiller, stringy tanning-bed-purple arms fighting the power-steering, her dulled eyes half-closed in that permanent expression of moronic disdain the rich reserve for when they are forced to mingle with the less rich.
But still they rage: you strike an SUV, you strike a rock. Or you strike a rock in an SUV, and you blame the guy in the ’93 Golf. Tax and be damned.