The past cannot be fixed

Sep 05, 11 The past cannot be fixed

The recent debate over Tutu’s ‘white tax’ has an awful lot of people hot under the collar. I have no problem with people debating this and Richard Stupart’s thoughtful piece is a great contribution to the discussion. It’s an interesting philosophical question to bounce around the privileged coffee shops and wine-bars of Sandton and Stellenbosch. I do have a problem when it becomes the whole national dialogue.

The current problem in South Africa is not Apartheid. Some, who like the issue for scoring political points or to raise public ire for the purposes of increasing their own fame and fortune, might pretend that it is. But it isn’t. The past was a contributor to the present, it is not the present.

We live in a society where millions of people are born into a situation where their families have no capital and no way to build capital. They don’t own land, they don’t have houses, they don’t have savings, they don’t have jobs. Their income streams are informal or ‘social security net’ at best, non-existent at worst. 22% of South Africans survive below the poverty line. 12 million people in this country do not have access to regular, healthy food. 12 million of a population of 50 million. That is more than 1 in 5. Many have no income, no assets and no access to credit beyond the R200 a month social grant that makes them utterly dependent on, and at the mercy of, the state. Unemployment is even higher. We have a system that is set up in such a way that a ridiculously large proportion of the country is kept vulnerable and dependent. This cannot be sustained.

We spend our time bickering about the past and arguing about which 50 people have a greater right to have control of the largest economic assets in the country. That isn’t what’s important. What is important is how we plan to continue to feed 50 million people with declining food production and rising food costs the world over. What is important is how we plan to employ more and better nurses and doctors so that we can stop killing off our babies (South Africa has an alarmingly high and rising infant mortality rate). What is important is how we plan to deal with the fact that thousands and thousands of poor children are growing up with no expectation of ever finding paid work – and they’re right.

I don’t really care whether white people are taxed more or not. I’d personally prefer not to pay more tax unless someone can show that the reason inequality continues is because I don’t pay more tax, but whatever. It’s not that important. Our national dialogue is so bogged down in petty squabbles about who was responsible for the past (as if there was any doubt), that the real, huge, incredibly important and difficult challenges facing this country are never even discussed. The legacy of Apartheid is not just economic inequality and racial divisions, it is that ‘white issues’, and more importantly ‘rich issues’ are still front and centre. It’s time to look beyond the 6-foot walls and recognise that the majority of the population is more important than what another well-paid commentator thinks about something affecting only a tiny minority.

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