American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin famously said:
In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
This sombre adage seems to ring truer than ever as millions of South Africans file their annual tax returns online. At the same time, the Davis Tax Committee – set up to review the country’s tax system – is quietly continuing its work. The committee’s focus has been on two major issues: how to increase tax on individuals without damaging the economy and how to stop the wealthy shifting profit to offshore havens.
Anyone who is currently neck-deep in tax forms will realise that the system needs far more reform than is currently being pursued. The tax system is still unimaginative, ungendered, ahistorical and neoliberal.
Millions of South Africans – rich and poor – pay “black tax”. They support extended families caught up in a cycle of poverty caused by apartheid.
Second, the tax system is colonial and punitive. Individuals are not rewarded for engaging in profoundly developmental work. While companies and individuals are given tax breaks for donations to not-for-profit organisations, citizens aren’t rewarded for being law abiding, nor for advancing equality and respect for diversity in a fragile young democracy.
Tax regimes also have a dubious colonial past.
Colonisation and tax
In Africa and under colonial rule, Africans were forced to pay a “hut tax” for the “privilege” of British administration. Hut taxes had devastating consequences. Paid in cash, the taxes forced people into wage labour.
In Sierra Leone, the Hut Tax War of 1898 led to a bloody rebellion. Tax – and colonialism – did not bring order, instead it left a legacy of repression, anarchy and poverty. Some experts have even suggested that this deep legacy exacerbated an outbreak of Ebola in the country between 2013 and 2015.
Tax regimes have been reformed dramatically since the dark days of colonialism. But many remain rooted in patriarchal ways of organising society. The effects, I believe, are inherently negative.
One example of a “big man” approach to tax comes from the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Anthropologists began studying these men from the mid 1950s, exploring how they use the distribution of pigs and yams to obtain power and manage resources. And this isn’t an outdated example: the “big man” system was still in place a few years ago.
Women, surviving in the unequal and often sexually violent highlands, do the critical work of agriculture, child and pig raising. Men “control” women and the less powerful, bartering and getting pigs for a range of favours and goods.
The ambitious and charismatic “Big Man”, uses eloquent speech and politicking to get people to give their beautiful pigs for the ritual feasts of redistribution or “Moka”. The lavish feasts encourage men to symbolise their power by styling their hair with the feathers of the elusive cassowary and performing elaborate speeches.
Invariably, the Big Man runs into problems. People refuse to give up their pigs. Those who have many, lie about how many they have and question the authority of the Big Man to ask for pigs. Those with a few are compelled to give up what they have. Pig theft has led to murder and war.
These patterns of resistance to patriarchal tax regimes can be found across the world, from centuries ago to very recent times.
Some societies have tried different approaches. In North America, especially in historical Kwakiutl society, the redistribution of blankets, food and other goods in a “feast” of gift giving, known as the Potlatch, assisted the poor and the restoration of dignity.
The Potlatch was not perfect, since a point came when chiefs tried to outdo one another by hosting massive and wasteful feasts. Even so, the historical Kwakiutl were already thinking about what the Davis Tax Committee calls the “social wage”.
So what might a more humane tax system look like?
South Africans could “activate” their philosophy of Ubuntu at the state level, to infuse a new tax system with humanity. The “new” tax could be historically conscious. It could, as the Davis Tax Committee has proposed, engage tax administration in various (international) jurisdictions to obtain national “rebates” for slavery and colonialism. One might say that reparations remain a rather large “tax” loophole to be investigated by an international chapter of the committee.
Nationally, we could expand the rebate criteria. Women could be rewarded for still spending more on their families. Our tax could be culturally attuned, rewarding expressions of diversity leading to creative industry. We could reward individual volunteer work and the emotional labour of essential service providers.
Timeously paying fines, including child maintenance claims would lead to a reduction in tax. The rebates could be in the form of money, goods or services, expanding the concept of the Bitcoin to enable varied redistribution. Fraud, corruption and crime would attract higher taxes.
In brief, tax reforms in South Africa could be more humane, because even if (as Franklin says) death is certain, no-one aspires to taxes that make for a “nasty (and) brutish” life.