Helen Zille. Picture: VELI NHLAPO/THE SOWETAN
Helen Zille. Picture: VELI NHLAPO/THE SOWETAN

Any government, tyrannous or democratic, depends on tax to function. It is the price that citizens and businesses pay in return for services, infrastructure and law and order. In SA, taxation performs an arguably more vital function than in many other countries, as it funds social grants for more than 18-million citizens.

This is why Western Cape premier Helen Zille’s call for a tax revolt is morally dangerous — but also shrewd. She says her intention is to force the government to prosecute those guilty of state capture — "the corrupt and powerful" — and of stealing from the people.

Zille’s seed falls on very fertile ground. The ANC-led government, and the SA Revenue Service (Sars) in particular, have lost a lot of legitimacy because of the revelations around state capture. The national sense of betrayal has produced an angry mood — and the outrage and frustration have only grown, because police and prosecutors are taking so long to act on the extensive evidence.

In November 2018, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan assured an audience at Wits University that those guilty of crimes would soon be measured for their orange prison overalls. But there seems to be no such commitment from his colleagues in the justice cluster of ministries.

A decade ago, when the reputation of Sars was at its zenith, a politician urging a tax boycott would not have been taken seriously. But that has changed. Acting Sars commissioner Mark Kingon was quick to respond to Zille’s call. It would be "inadvisable and very unwise", he said, to call for a tax revolt. "It is advocating for taxpayers to commit criminal offences. I believe it would damage democracy."

Even DA spokesperson Mabine Seabe, whose party line Zille is supposed to toe, said tersely that "she has no authority to pronounce on policy". And party leader Mmusi Maimane rejected her call unequivocally.

Zille must know that a tax revolt on any significant scale is almost impossible. Most individuals pay tax as they earn, through monthly or weekly payroll deductions — so they do not have the power to withhold tax. And large companies already employ all the tricks in the book to pay as little tax as possible.

But to turn lawful avoidance into deliberate evasion by nonpayment would be criminal. It is hard to imagine any CEO getting a board to condone such behaviour. And anyway, even if a tax boycott gained traction, Sars could always go into bank accounts and seize what is owed to it.

So what was Zille thinking? She knows that boycotts have been powerful political weapons in SA. In the 1980s, they were used to fatally undermine apartheid structures. People were encouraged to withhold rent and electricity payments — and the legacy of that remains to this day, a rock chained to Eskom’s neck. When the state was widely seen as illegitimate, it was respectable to undermine it. For many, the state has again been rendered illegitimate — this time not because it is undemocratic, but because of corruption.

Zille’s call may be dismissed as treasonous or mischievous. It is certainly impractical — and even if it were not, it would undermine the government she herself runs in the Western Cape.

Though it was a disingenuous move on her part, surely her real intention was to emphasise the extent to which corruption has disgraced the ANC and neutralised its electoral legitimacy.

Her idea of a tax boycott has been, rightfully, quickly dismissed. But the question she asks lingers, and remains unanswered: why is nobody being prosecuted and sent to jail?