Analysis: Missing history, lacking context bring back the great white-tax debate

By Osiame Molefe 15 August 2011

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu came under fire over the weekend from the FF Plus, the FW de Klerk Foundation and others incensed at report that said he had called for “a wealth tax to be imposed on all white South Africans”. But with the TRC having previously recommended such a tax in its final report, why all the surprise and dismay? Has the amnesia set in already or was the TRC itself racist? By OSIAME MOLEFE.

The Cape Argus reported Tutu had called for the “white tax” at the launch of the book, “The Humanist Imperative in South Africa”, a collection of 26 scholarly essays from the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study’s new humanism project.

During his speech, Tutu made reference to the TRC’s final report, which recommended that “a scheme be put into place to enable those who benefited from apartheid policies to contribute towards the alleviation of poverty”. The recommendations in the report’s final volumes were more prescriptive, recommending that government impose a once-off wealth tax on South African business and industry, and that all beneficiaries of apartheid make a contribution to a repatriations fund.

Tutu said all white people benefited from apartheid and added that pointing this out made you controversial.

Responding to the comments, the FW de Klerk Foundation suggested that Tutu, by calling for a wealth tax on only one of South Africa’s race groups, was calling for the reintroduction of apartheid-era racial classification and its demeaning racial distinctions. The FF+ reportedly said the idea was racist and thoughtless.

The TRC, however, did not see it that way. The commission believed the tax would fulfil a role larger than just reparations. It thought it necessary for reconciliation.

In her paper, “The Unfinished Business of the TRC”, Yasmin Sooka, a former commissioner, wrote, “In our situation, what is tragic is that the new government, which inherited a bankrupt structure, has to bankroll reparations for the sins committed by the past government. Those who benefited from the spoils of apartheid are still benefiting. There has been no special tax imposed, no demand for any act of personal contrition, no need for an act of restitution to the victims directly, no loss of jobs or land. Victims see this.”

Money, says Sooka, can become a central factor in the ritual of atonement in modern societies – not just for its value, but also for its symbolism.

The commission’s reparations and rehabilitation committee recommended that funds collected through the wealth tax and other means be used to fund a broader project of reparations and restitution at the individual, symbolic, community and national levels. This never happened and, instead, reparations to victims of gross human rights abuses under apartheid were funded from the president’s fund, which received voluntary contributions from businesses.

A large part of why the reparations and rehabilitation committee’s recommendations were ignored was for economic stability. But some, like Tutu and Sooka, given the continued levels of poverty and inequality in the country, seem to suggest that the economic stability came at further expense to apartheid’s victims and the country’s threadbare social fabric.

In its final report, the TRC said it was established in large part because of the dangers of inappropriate forgetting. The responses to Tutu’s statement show that the forgetting has begun and its dangers real. DM



Read more:

  • Tutu’s ‘white tax is racist’ at News24;
  • Tutu’s race tax proposal: A response by FW de Klerk Foundation at PoliticssWeb.

Photo: Archbishop Desmond Tutu is seen through crowds as he speaks during a visit with Princess Charlene of Monaco to the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation youth centre in Masiphelele township, near Cape Town, July 8, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.


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