John de Gruchy meditation on the “Tutu tax” proposal


Luke 18:18-30

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is
rich to enter the kingdom of God.

 Did you know that the Bible says more about
economic justice than it does about prayer?
Come to think about it, so does Jesus.
Prayer is central to the Christian life, but nowhere does Jesus say that
we will not enter the kingdom of God if we don’t pray.  He does say that it is almost impossible for
rich people to do so.  In saying this,
Jesus was simply repeating one of the basic themes of the Old Testament
prophets.  It is there that we learn that
money is the root of all evil, and it is Jesus who says that we cannot serve
God and money.  All of which is a
necessary prologue for us to reflect on the controversy that erupted in the
media these past two weeks in response to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s speech at
the launch of The Humanist Imperative in
South Africa,
the book I recently edited.

The Arch, as our dearly loved Volmoed Patron
is known, has often made the headlines.
And, sure enough he did so again when The Argus blazoned across its front page:  “Tutu:
Tax wealthy whites!” The moment I saw the headline on the posters I knew
that it had to do with the Arch’s speech at the book launch in Stellenbosch the
evening before.  But I was taken by
surprise when right next to the large headline was an equally large photo of
Tutu and me.   If you can’t make the
headlines on your own, invite the Archbishop to help you do so!  One either becomes immediately famous or
infamous by association.  Whether anyone
has bought the book because of what subsequently happened, or even remembers
that Tutu made the statement at its launch, it must be said that the book has
in fact got considerable publicity as a result.  But more importantly it has sparked off an
important and at times heated public debate, which is exactly what the book was
intended to do.  In fact I could tell my
granddaughter Kate when I saw her in Pietermaritzburg that “Grandpa has created
a national crisis!”  Well, not exactly
grandpa, and maybe not a major crisis, but she got my drift.

I have heard several radio discussions on
what Tutu said and also seen much in the newspapers about it, ranging from the
reaction of angry whites using ill-informed arguments and giving us their
gut-feelings, to more reasoned discussions about the issues Tutu has raised.  The point is very simple: have the majority
of us whites in South Africa ever really come to terms with the fact that
apartheid made us all privileged to the disadvantage of the majority of South
Africans?  The white response to the TRC,
for example, was generally silent but often “well, we did not really support
apartheid, and have nothing to apologize for!
It was the Nationalists, the Afrikaners, the rest of them – but not
us!”  But there was no acknowledgement
that we were all beneficiaries, including those who opposed apartheid.  By virtue of our skin colour we all
benefitted in many ways from apartheid.
So Tutu was calling on us all to acknowledge that fact in a concrete way
– this was, after all, a recommendation of the TRC in 1996 which was never put
into effect.  Incidentally, Tutu not only
addressed whites in his speech.  He
criticized the black leadership in the country as well, something conveniently
ignored by angry white respondents.  And
who can deny that our current government is guilty of corruption and much
else.  But that does not excuse those of
us who are white from listening to and taking seriously what Tutu said.  Fortunately there are perceptive whites who understand
what the Archbishop has said, and have entered into the discussion with
knowledge, insight and moral commitment.

For what Tutu said is exactly the kind of
thing one would expect from a Christian prophet who is sensitive to what is
going on in South Africa at the moment.
Apartheid is not dead. Those of us who were the economic beneficiaries
of apartheid remain its beneficiaries in many ways despite affirmative action
and the like and even though there is a growing black middle class and wealthy
population.  For too long we felt
entitled to the best schools, best medical care, best housing, best everything
else in comparison to some of the worst education, health service, shacks, and
everything else that has been the outcome not just of more recent government
failures to deliver, that is certainly true, but of centuries of colonial rule,
land dispossession and racial discrimination.  I know that today we would all agree that
transformation is necessary, but we do find it difficult to move beyond the
mindset of the past.

Prophets like those in the Old Testament
and Jesus himself do not make detailed political or economic proposals, and
neither does Tutu, about how to deal with the issues.  So we miss the point if we simply respond to
his challenge by saying it won’t work, or it is inappropriate, or why not tax
wealthy blacks as well, or who is going to manage such a tax, and my goodness,
we are so heavily taxed as it is.   Tutu has, in fact, already clarified his
comments to include all wealthy people irrespective of race and as a result of
some very interesting positive proposals are beginning to emerge.   The truth is, the huge difference between
the wealthy and the poor in South Africa cannot be sustained and will only
foster unrest, more strikes and the like. If we do not learn to share far more
than we do, we will in the end all be the losers.  That is the lesson of history.  It is also the teaching of Jesus who said : “It
is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is
rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  No
wonder his hearers cried out in alarm “Then who can be saved?”  So in responding to Tutu let us remember again
what Jesus teaches us about economic justice, and only then pray – not just for
the poor, but that our society will become less divided by wealth and poverty.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 25 August 2011



2 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for this posting, John. It is so important to name it — that Apartheid is not dead — as you have and as Tutu has through his proposal. I am struck by your connection of Luke 18 with the message of the Old Testament prophets. Of course, that is true, and it is so interesting that the citizens of Israel are now calling on their government to be true to this legacy. Will we see this reflected as well in a recognition, on a societal level on the part the Jews of Israel, of the historic and continuing injustice done to the Palestinian inhabitants of the land?

    I am put in mind the passage from Malachi chapter 3:

    But who can endure the day of His coming?
    And who can stand when He appears?
    For He is like a refiner’s fire
    And like launderers’ soap.
    He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver;
    He will purify the sons of Levi,
    And purge them as gold and silver,
    That they may offer to the LORD
    An offering in righteousness.

    We need these national crises, as your granddaughter has called the reaction to Tutu’s proposal, and, God willing, your book, and to the crisis the citizens of Israel have fomented. And it needs to feel to the powers, as well as to the people, exactly as the prophet has imaged — like a refiners fire. It has to burn, and it has to be as fundamentally transformative as that. I’m sure that the prophet meant to convey the pain of that process — just as Jesus, in his metaphor, meant to say — this is not going to be easy, this is going to hurt, you will have to change fundamentally. May we all find our way to be these Levites — priests in the Kingdom of God. All washed, all changed, all leveled.



  2. Posted by padrewbab on August 29, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Thank you John (and the Arch) for this! I’ve tweeted this!



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