ANTHONY BUTLER: Why a tax revolt is not such a good idea
Holding back our taxes would force the government to increase indirect and company taxes, and this would have severe consequences for employment and the poor
The DA’s website currently hosts a campaign: Stop the Tax Attack on South Africans! The party states that “South Africans are being made to pay for the ANC’s corruption and mismanagement of the economy over the last decade … We refuse to continue paying … Enough is enough!”
The campaign focuses on indirect taxes, notably the fuel levy, though it also rails against increases in income tax, value-added tax (VAT), and sugar tax.
“When you fill up your tank, you will pay R265 (a third!) directly into the pockets of the ANC-govt, in tax! … Stop these exorbitant petrol price increases by taking action against corruption instead.” The ANC must “balance the budget by CUTTING corruption — not taking from the pockets of the people”, it says.
The DA deliberately conflates the state with the ANC — the “ANC-govt” — into whose “pockets” a third of the cost of fuel is transferred. All this comes on top of the party’s apparent support for the nonpayment of e-tolls.
Western Cape premier Helen Zille extended the DA’s antitax campaign over the past week. In a series of tweets and interviews she insists that she will organise a tax revolt if the ANC is not punished at the polls later this year and miscreants implicated at the Zondo commission are not prosecuted
Zille points to “a whole lot of tax revolts in progress right now”: nonpayment of Eskom by municipalities, nonrenewal of TV licences, refusal to pay e-tolls and government ministers’ alleged failure to pay income tax.
The DA’s official campaign forefronts indirect taxes. VAT accounts for a quarter of revenue, while customs duties, excise duties and the fuel levy together account for about 15%. Zille, in contrast, focuses on 4.9-million“ordinary diligent middle-class taxpayers”.
This is a little more than the number of people who voted for the DA in the last national elections, a little less than the population of the Western Cape, and exactly the number of whites in SA.
Zille’s rhetoric seems designed to fuel the perverse sense of victimhood that sometimes grips these three groups, some of whom, it is fair to say, are abnormal and not especially diligent. The number 4.9-million is also the proportion of SA’s 14-million registered taxpayers who are responsible for 97% of income tax receipts, but 60% of tax revenues do not come from personal income taxes at all.
Zille is right that there is no unequivocal moral obligation to obey the law. It has proved surprisingly difficult over the past 2,000 years to come up with a compelling answer to the question: “Why should I obey the state?”
If I participate in a democratic election I am perhaps consenting to obey the winners. More plausibly, we may be under a moral obligation to obey a state that protects human rights or provides a wide range of liberties to its citizens.
But Zille makes a fundamentally important point: we should not obey the law just because it is the law. We have a duty to act in accordance with our own moral judgments. However, those like Zille who promote defiance should undertake their campaigns in a morally serious spirit, and with a clear awareness of their potentially negative consequences.
It does not seem prudent, on the face of it, to play political games with a tax revolt in a country engaged in a difficult experiment to entrench the legitimacy of constitutional government. Personal tax compliance is already falling, and many of Zille’s cherished 4.9-millionwill cloak self-interest under the moral bluster of an anticorruption campaign.
A successful revolt would force government to increase indirect and company taxes, and this would have severe consequences for employment and for the wellbeing of the poor. Tax compliance, once significantly weakened, will prove hard or impossible to re-establish.
There is no need to resort to the ridiculous claim that Zille’s actions are tantamount to treason. But we should ask the DA, and Zille, to try instead to win the election — and perhaps also to grow up.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.