Blaming the Colonial Legacy

The peoples of many developing nations can legitimately attribute their woes to crimes committed by their former colonial masters. But their political leaders are not entitled to complain – they have had sufficient time to correct the injustices. President Zuma of South Africa, in particular, has no right to play the colonial card.

Of all the former colonial countries, South Africa would appear to be the one that most warrants sympathy. The shameful apartheid policy degraded everyone, black and white. Nelson Mandela was appropriately celebrated for his part in terminating the 20th century’s version of slavery. But South Africa was unique among the colonised territories for the speed with which it could have corrected the legacy of colonialism. Instead, the ANC government not only failed to use its opportunities. It actually abandoned the one policy instrument that could have set the nation on the path to full freedom and economic success.

South Africa is resource-rich. What it needed in the post-apartheid era was a tax reform that would emancipate both its people and the resources of nature. The first Mandela government inherited the embryonic policy that could have jump-started the nation on to the road to recovery. Every town except two applied a property tax that fell directly on the value of land. The tax-take was trivial, but the administrative infrastructure was in place to launch a fiscal revolution that could have had as much global impact as that of Mandela walking free from Robben Island.

All that the first government needed to do was progressively shift taxes off working people and their investments in enterprises, replacing the lost revenue by raising the tax rates on land. Instead, the ANC government chose to emulate the unjust tax regime applied in Europe. It abolished the direct tax on land and adopted the standard property tax which, in the West, has done nothing to prevent the property boom/busts.

Embedding Injustice

The South African government did institute an extensive public enquiry into tax reform. It was fully informed of the wisdom of harnessing the Land Tax option. Evidence was presented by citizens like Godfrey Dunkley, a long standing opponent of apartheid from Cape Town who campaigned for fiscal reform. The government chose to ignore that advice and in 2004 abolished the Land Tax, choosing instead the property tax that could only hinder its own policy on land reform.

Subsequently, another Cape Town resident and property valuer, Peter Meakin, arranged a briefing for Treasury officials in Pretoria, at which I was present. The case for re-balancing the tax regime was presented to top civil servants. They declared an interest in further investigating the benefits of shifting taxes off the enterprises that would create the jobs that are desperately needed in South Africa. Nothing came of this initiative.

And so, predictably, frustration is intensifying in the townships of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Mounting unemployment, rising crime, land reform targets that are not being met…these are all stirring discontent against the government. President Zuma cannot invoke colonialism to explain away any part of these social stresses, because South Africa has had 20 years in which to upgrade the one policy that could have placed her on the path to harmony and prosperity.

Better Off Under Apartheid?

The crimes now being perpetrated by South Africa’s law enforcement agencies are creating an image problem for Zuma’s government. Last summer, police shot dead dozens of striking miners. This week, policemen tied a taxi driver to the back of their van and dragged him along the streets to the police station where he died. Is it surprising that some unemployed people in the townships are muttering that they were better off in the apartheid era?

Now Zuma is lecturing corporations about their “colonial” attitudes, and threatening them with his country’s turn to China for economic salvation. China, he told the Financial Times (March 4) was willing to foster value-adding industries in Africa. China has her agenda, and it’s not a million miles away from the one pursued by Europe in the 19th century. If African nations really want to foster value-adding enterprises, they have the sovereign power to do this without the aid of China or anyone else.

It’s time for people like Zuma to stop using colonialism as an excuse for their own political failures.

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