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Constitutional law expert supports wealth tax

Fienie Grobler

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ohannesburg - Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos came out in support on Monday of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu's call for a once-off wealth tax imposed on those who benefited from apartheid.

"Not only is a wealth tax on white South Africans who earn a minimum amount of money constitutionally valid," De Vos wrote on his blog, Constitutionally Speaking. "It is also an important and welcome idea that must be supported by all right-thinking South Africans with even a smidgen of a conscience or common sense."

The tax would be a small gesture towards reconciliation and redress, he said.

"If I had been born black and poor, I almost certainly would not have gone to University and I would almost certainly never have been a Law Professor at UCT [University of Cape Town], earning quite a nice salary, thank you."

De Vos criticised the FW de Klerk Foundation for rejecting the idea of a reparations tax, and for saying in a media statement that it would be unconstitutional to do so.

"Such measures are not 'reverse discrimination' or 'positive discrimination' but are rather 'integral to the reach of our equality protection'."

ConCourt ruling

De Vos cited a ruling that was handed down by the Constitutional Court, titled Minister of Finance versus Mr Van Heerden in July 2004.

In this case, Van Heerden had complained that parliamentarians who first joined parliament in 1994 were getting better pension benefits over a five-year period than those who were parliamentarians in the apartheid era.

"Mr Van Heerden, an old apartheid era parliamentarian, complained that the scheme discriminated against whites because the vast majority of new parliamentarians in 1994 were black and those who served before 1994 were mostly white.

"The court rejected this argument, pointing out that Mr Van Heerden was still going to be far better off in terms of his pension than any parliamentarian who entered parliament in 1994 for the first time."

De Vos argued that this judgment supported Tutu's idea of a once-off reparation tax, which the Archbishop again raised during a lecture at the University of Stellenbosch last week, in reference to a recommendation made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

"A once-off wealth tax imposed on white South Africans who earn more than a certain amount as a small gesture towards reconciliation and redress would almost certainly pass the Van Heerden threshold because whether one supported apartheid or struggled against it, one invariably benefited from it if one is a white South African (whether born before or after 1994)," said De Vos.

Annual tax

He would go even further and suggest that an annual tax be imposed for up to two years.

"Why not impose such a tax of – say – two percent or three percent of one’s annual income for a period of a year or two and then divert that tax into a special fund, administered by a respected panel of experts...

"How many school libraries could be built with that money? How many fully stocked laboratories could be built with that money? How many soccer fields and pavilions could be erected with that money?

"How many new computer labs with internet access could be provided to students who now can only dream of having access to computers and the internet?," asked De Vos.

"The problem is, of course, that some white people – out of shame or ignorance or maybe a bit of both – do not want to admit that white South Africans almost all benefited from apartheid."


Aug. 15, 2011