From Archbishop-emeritus Desmond Tutu: a response to some of the recent debate

South Africa is a spectacular country,
richly endowed with natural resources, breathtaking scenery and talented 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’s 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?
Signboard sprouted in townships across the land, speaking of water delivery,
and new electricity connections, new homes and communities. We could see and
feel and taste ourselves re-building.

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 underway, 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 more nearly three 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’s the first point I raised in
my remarks at a book launch in Stellenbosch last week. The old haves continue
to have, and they’ve 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 dependant 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 businesspeople 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 under-developed 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 businesspeople 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 1990’s
achievements for too long.

 

 

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mel on August 19, 2011 at 9:30 am

    Has the moment for that specific tax passed? If we are going to ask the wealthy for contributions, whether they are white or black is now irrelevant. I would hope whites would be generous, as they certainly did automatically benefit from apartheid. However, it is more in keeping with the country we want to create if we urge anyone with money to contribute.

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  2. […] The management of such a fund would be very difficult. I think most would agree that the South African government does not have the moral authority currently to administer such a fund, nor would people voluntarily pay into it if it went directly into leaky government coffers. But if it was run, as suggested by Tutu, by a group of bankers and businessmen, it would pose a serious threat to government authority in spending priorities and might create unintended tension and rivalry. Not sure if I have an answer to this dilemma.

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  3. Posted by Abdul on August 20, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book: We Need to Talk by Prof Jonathan Jensen. “ways of speaking can help heal or they can provoke; they can inflame passions or settle nerves” is so true and correct.

    Please read this excellent piece of book/ literature.

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    Reply

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