Matthew Lester: My Open Letter to Mark Shuttleworth

Matthew Lester: Rhodes Business School professor, tax and financial planning specialist
Matthew Lester: Rhodes Business School professor, tax and financial planning specialist

By Matthew Lester*

Dear Mark Shuttleworth,

On Wednesday 1 October I attended a meeting of the Davis Tax Committee. We are engaged in debate over South Africa’s tax system that certainly was never designed to survive the ongoing aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis.

Considering the extent of the financial crisis, it amazes me that SA is still on the map. Despite the daily reports of fraud and corruption in SA we have managed to stick to our national budgets. Nevertheless we will have accumulated R1,2 trillion of national debt since 2008. And if we pursue this trajectory we run the very real risk of our sovereign debt collapsing to junk status.

The impact of a currency collapse for South Africa represents the nightmare scenario that would destroy everything we have achieved in the rainbow nation.

In the middle of the meeting the news broke ‘Shuttleworth has defeated the Reserve Bank in the Supreme Court of Appeal and R250 million has to be refunded.’

Few South Africans realise that the Reserve Bank is funded by National Treasury. So the hit has to be taken by the taxpayer of today or added to the National Debt. The fact that the revenue was spent in good times prior to 2008 is of little comfort.

I am so pleased that the funds are to be applied for the greater good of all South Africans in pursuing better interpretation and implementation of the constitution. However is it really necessary to apply R250 million to this end?

Apparently the legal fees of Oscar Pistorius will exceed R10 million. Who knows? If so the fund will be enough to finance 20 equivalent cases. But Oscar will have been in the High Court for 50 days before his case is done. Cases before the SCA or constitutional court are usually scheduled for one day.

Mandela told us to educate our children. So today South Africa spends 20 cents in every Rand of tax collected on education. That’s R247 billion in the current fiscal year or over R1 billion per teaching day. And it is not working!

Schools are closing as teacher deployment is bungled. Teachers are demotivated and many are not even in the classroom. And the old guard of teachers, currently over 50 years old, who are holding what is left together will all retire as soon their state pensions become available. It’s a mess.

We need some Mark Shuttleworth brain power, innovation and energy to provide an alternative for all South Africans. Even a perfect constitution will be of little value if a significant proportion of South Africa is uneducated and jobless.

The old guard of teachers say that nothing can beat the sheer magic of direct contact between teacher and learner. They are quite right. But on the other hand anyone can tell you that nothing is more destructive than direct contact with bad teaching.

William Smith is a great teacher who has helped thousands upon thousands of South Africans through his television programs. Surely he has proved that one good teacher in distance based education can achieve a great deal.

Across South Africa’s public and private schools we have some fantastic teachers. If this talent could be harnessed in support of distanced based education we could supplement the current system and provide all South Africans with some urgently needed help.

In short we need a magnificent Mark Shuttleworth website to supplement South Africa’s failing education system. It would cost but a fraction of the funds dedicated to the pursuit of the constitution. If successful there would surely be plenty of local and international businesses, philanthropists and celebrities who would join the worthy cause.

The project could grow and even extend across Africa.

It is not only about the money. What South Africa needs is that Mark Shuttleworth example of brains and energy to act as the catalyst to push an internet education project to viral status. We need to make it hip2B@school. And somehow knock Justin Bieber off his perch.

Government has adopted a national development plan towards a sustainable new RSA by 2030. But they will never achieve these goals alone.

Better still, a Mark Shuttleworth initiative towards helping education with technology could stand out as an example of what South Africans really can achieve if we put our minds together.

Kind regards


* Rhodes University Professor Matthew Lester (52) was educated at St Johns College, Wits and Rhodes universities. He is a chartered accountant who has worked at Deloittes, SARS and BDO Spencer Steward. A member of the Davis Tax Committee investigating the structure of aspects of the RSA tax system, he is based in Grahamstown. His passions include the regaining of the new South Africa, using information technology to simplify the teaching of taxation, the beach, the fishing and Great Dane dogs. @ProfMattLester

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