(This piece first appeared in The Herald on 19 October 2016)
A few days back, I made a short presentation on some of my recent work to a, polite audience at the newly renovated Tramways building. To be honest though, the small group of architects, historians and academics had mainly come out to hear from my colleague, Professor Albrecht Herholdt, with whom I shared the stage that evening. You see, Professor Herholdt, is one of our region’s finest architects and he spoke that evening on the fantastic work that he and his team is doing with the MBDA to bring the historic 1820 Settler Campanile back to life as a working tourist curiosity. The work being done there is really impressive. The bells are going to chime once again, the crumbling brickwork will be repaired and the old clock will once again be a reliable resource for those passers-by who do not wear a watch.
I was pondering this lovely presentation as I dreamily cast my eyes from the third floor window of my Clyde Street office the next morning. From my desk, I have an unsurpassed view of Algoa Bay. On a clear day I can see all the way to the Port of Nqura. But it was not a clear day. It was not even a quiet day. In fact, I was startled out of my dreaminess by the sound of chanting and toyi-toying coming past my building. A noisy protest was making its way from Cape Road to Town. Hundreds of angry students in #Feesmustfall regalia, escorted by a massive police contingent, including a huge big water cannon truck, which had just been decorated in dripping turquoise by a protestor’s “paint bomb”. The students passed without incident. The chatter in the office was all about “Well the ANC promised free education…” and “Why don’t they just stop burning down the Libraries?”.
But I’ve been thinking about these protests a little. And the more I think of it, the more I see that these students are raising an important question that we have not yet fully debated as a country. If I am able for a moment to look past the arson, the intimidation and the thuggery, I can just see the beginnings of a meaningful inquiry into what we as a community feel is reasonable or unreasonable to expect our tax payers to pay for. I ponder this question now as I sit writing this piece in the Wimpy Bar in Port Alfred. I have stopped to rest a little from my drive back from a project meeting, coordinating the spending of hundreds of millions of tax payers Rands in new buildings to accommodate various government departments’ administration and management needs. The driving was tough as I navigated the “stop and gos” caused by the hundreds of millions of Rands invested in widening and generally improving the coastal road from East London the Port Elizabeth.
The thing is, I have been in business for the last twenty years or so. I have paid a lot of tax in that time. I have paid Vat, PAYE, Transfer Duty, Import Duty, Capital Gains Tax, Municipal Rates, RSC levies and those taxes you pay on alcohol and fuel that I can remember the names of. Though I feel good about the fact that, through my taxes, I have been able to make some contribution to the effort to improve our country, I am also deeply conscious that every time I fork out tax money, I am not doing so voluntarily. You and I are compelled to pay tax by force and by the full might of the state. If I don’t pay, I will be jailed. If resist my captors, I will be shot. It is not overly dramatic for me to say therefor, that you and I pay our taxes at the threat of death. It’s just a fact.
Today though, I am not making an argument for or against taxation. I am rather arguing that this money, which has been extorted from us, must be treated with a far greater measure of respect. If we are to accept taxation as a necessary evil, there must be some understanding that tax money can only be used to deliver something that the private sector would not otherwise be able to deliver. So, I would like us all to begin to ask of each other: Why is it not a good idea to spend tax payers money to support struggling students? Why is it a good idea to spend taxpayers’ money to make it easier for lorries to drive from PE to East London, or for container ships to dock at Nqura or for for SAA so compete with Kalula.com? Can the huge industries and corporations that run these transport and logistics operations not pay for this? Why is it a good idea to spend tax money on massive brass bells in the 1820 Settlers Campanile? Can the lovers of bell chime music not pay for this? I am asking the question not because I claim to know the answer, but because I believe we have allowed ourselves to be side tracked by fear mongers and haters. We have been side-tracked to such an extent that we have not been able to hear the valid questions the students are clumsily asking…”What projects, should we as a community, invest taxpayers money in?” “What investments will ensure the best of possible futures for our people?” “What investments can wait a little longer until we have helped each other emerge from the scourge of poverty and desperation?”