Editorial: Wealthy must pay their taxes and cut the crap

The Mail & Guardian remains an equal opportunity connoisseur of the silliness of politicians. ANC politicians, bless their Bosasa-Gupta-shaped hearts, continue to provide us with enough evidence that silliness is still a prerequisite for public office.

Just the other day, for example, Jacob Zuma refuted any notion that his term in office amount to nine wasted years. Clearly, whoever gave Zuma the idea to create a Twitter account that would so generously flatter his vanity must have been inspired by Helen Zille.

Now, the erstwhile Democratic Alliance leader, and soon-to-be ex-Western Cape premier, has said many silly things on the social media platform. We can’t really keep up with the DA’s policy about her tweets — the party may, or may not, stand by her right to say the most outrageous things and get away with it.

But even by Zille’s illustrious standards, her threat of a tax revolt, should the electorate dare to elect the ANC to power again, is certainly one of the sillier things she has ever said.

When Oxfam released its annual hand-wringing over the state of income inequality last week, it noted that the number of persons in the country living in what is extreme poverty — that is, people living below the 2015 Food Poverty Line of R441 a person a month — increased from 11-million in 2011 to 13.8-million in 2015, which represents 25.2% of the population.

And then, on the other end of the scale, we hear about the dizzying amounts of money that were splashed out on buying the favour of politicians.

South Africa is among the few places in the world where conspicuous consumption can be measured not only by the number of monogrammed handbags one can accumulate, but also by how many politicians you can fit into your pocket.

Undoubtedly, corruption is a serious impediment to the development of South Africa.

There is hope. The Zondo, Mokgoro and Public Investment Corporation commissions of inquiry, along with reforms underway at state-owned enterprises, the National Prosecuting Authority and other critical levers of government are encouraging signs that there is a willingness to address this misrule.

But, amid all the shock and consternation, conversations about income inequality in South Africa are most urgent. Indeed, the reality that, nearly 25 years into democracy, a poor person is still most likely to be black, a woman and from rural South Africa, the greatest victims of corruption are not likely to be counted among Zille’s Twitter army.

The reality of race-based inequality is a shame to the political class who will continue to knock on the doors of poor black women, offering them yellow T-shirts.

It is, however, the same politicians who will also knock on the doors of the richest South Africans, pleading for their rands to fund their campaigns, in exchange for a tender or three. It is these same business people who are costing the country billions in their elaborate — but legal — tax avoidance schemes.

We are trapped in a vortex in which nothing really changes.

To his credit, the one politician who has consistently raised the question of tax avoidance in Parliament these past five years is Economic Freedom Fighters chief whip Floyd Shivambu — we’re going to be generous and assume he is incandescent about the fact that some of his brother’s companies have never even registered for tax-paying purposes. But it’s Shivambu who last year called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to deal decisively with tax avoidance and pass legislation to deal with illicit financial flows.

The Panama Papers showed us how serious the problem of tax avoidance really is. Former president Thabo Mbeki’s report on illicit cash flows showed that tax avoidance is one of the key impediments to economic recovery for Africa.

What we need is for politicians, like Zille, to be advocating for more rigorous tax schemes — not for a tax revolt.

So, we would like to chorus the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, who has become internet-famous for his diatribe against the wealthy who gather in Davos to commit to philanthropic ideals, when really all they need to do is just pay their damn taxes: “Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit.”

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