There are two questions that arise from the call for a national tax revolt, the first being how possible and practical is this option to force government back into line and secondly, but more importantly, what are the consequences if indeed some semblance of a tax revolt is able to be pulled off?
Starting with the second question, my argument against those who call for a full-blown tax revolt is one that suggests contemplation of the consequences thereof may not have crossed their minds. Do they honestly want to live in a country where policing and security services, education, health facilities, water supply, border controls, ports and other structures come to a grinding halt? This is the reality of a national tax revolt. People stop working when they don’t get paid and it doesn’t take more than a few weeks, or a couple of months at best, to see the chaos that would ensue, never mind the civil unrest emanating from non-payment of social grants. Yes, the rich may be able to hold out a tad longer, as will the politicians who can finance some of the life securities required amidst the turmoil, but that won’t last long.
Turning to the first question, i.e. the possibility of even pulling off such a “tax heist” within today’s environment and South Africa’s economic structures would require that business, largely big business, would be totally committed to and coordinate the withholding of PAYE, VAT and company taxes to SARS. These three taxes alone make up 80% of the almost R1,2 trillion in taxes collected each year and, without the cooperation and support of big business behind the tax-revolt scheme, it simply isn’t going to happen. The chances of that under the current political climate is virtually zero.
Were, however, Jacob Zuma still in power, now that might make for a different setting. Amidst the backdrop of a ludicrous Russian nuclear power deal, the Guptas still living and plundering away in South Africa with Shaun Abrahams keeping prosecutions at bay, and Malusi Gigaba in charge of treasury’s cheque book, maybe then big business would develop an appetite to participate in the idea of a tax revolt. And that’s a big maybe, because this was largely the reality some 18 months ago and big business was very distant and silent on this issue.
Some may say this stance is rich coming from myself who was part of a team that drove (and continues to drive) the civil disobedience campaign against e-tolls. After all, tolling is a form of taxation, so what’s the difference? Well, there is a big difference in challenging specific policies and laws that come into being, when these are irrational, costly and not in the best interests of society. OUTA has never said we don’t want to pay for infrastructure. What we have always said is that against the backdrop of no meaningful public consultation, and where existing alternative policies that make more sense are ignored, the public has an obligation to challenge unjust laws and policies. There is a major difference between the e-toll defiance campaign and that of a national tax revolt.
To prove our point, had the existing policy and option of treasury allocations been used to finance the very necessary Gauteng Freeway Upgrade (propped up if need be by a minor 10 cent adjustment to the fuel levy), the state would have already covered the capital portion of that loan. Instead, it has not settled any sizeable element of the bonds, let alone the interest. The expensive, cumbersome and irrational drive-now-pay-later e-toll scheme was always going to be unenforceable and virtually impossible to administer and thus it was reasonable and very possible for civil society to challenge this matter.
When it comes to local government and municipality matters, the tax-revolt debate and the efficacy thereof takes on a whole new meaning and reality. There are many incidents of successful municipal (local government) tax revolts that have and will continue to take place in South Africa, especially when due process is followed. Successful “tax revolts” at local government level are even provided for in law, so long as due process is followed and generally through organised civil society, communities, business and resident bodies who display valid reason to withhold payment of local rates and taxes.
OUTA’s stance on calling for a reality check and distancing itself from a national tax revolt, must not be construed as a change of heart or relaxation from its hard approach to challenge government to get its house in order. As one element within organised civil society, we must and will continue to hold government to account for its unacceptable conduct, wasteful expenditure and lack of action against its corrupt politicians, and we will do so in a multifaceted and structured fashion.
Adversarial approaches to charge government and its leaders for misconduct – by gathering evidence and laying charges – will continue to feature within our quiver of arrows aimed at holding government to account. While these actions may appear to be tedious and futile at times, it pays off in the long run as we are witnessing with a number of our projects and cases that are being worked on by the enforcement authorities, who have found a new lease of life under the Ramaphosa administration. While they are currently under-capacitated and overwhelmed, this is all the more reason for civil society to get involved and assist, coordinate and continue to apply pressure.
Additional to adversarial actions are cooperative and engaging encounters that help to empower parliamentarians and others in authority with facts and rational arguments that change the course of government. Granted this was virtually impossible while Zuma was in power. However, today things are very different and the times they are a-changin’.
And then there is the ballot box. A democratic right that comes around every five years and one which the politicians generally milk for around six months leading up to election day. This is the period we are in right now. Beware the hype and calls for drastic actions that make sense at an emotional level but, in reality, are nothing but a pipe dream or a recipe for disaster.
Politicians (granted not all) become heightened to the plight of society’s frustrations every five years, whilst civil action organisations fight these issues on a daily basis. DM