Black Tax – a burden or ubuntu

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“Black Tax is a highly sensitive and complex topic that is often debated among black South Africans, while these debates are always inconclusive due to the ambiguity, irony and paradoxes that surround it, as black people we will agree that “black tax” is part of our daily lives”.

These are the words of Niq Mhlongo, who is the editor. With contribution from renowned professionals and writers such as Dudu Busani-Dube, Fred Khumalo, Angelena Makholwa, Phehello J Mofokeng, Nkateko Masina, Chwayita Ngamlana, and Bongani Kana. The book takes a closer look at the meaning and ramifications surrounding this phenomenon called black tax.

Should we use the term ‘Black tax’?

The term black tax is not accepted by majority of contributors, they feel it’s absurd and it’s a misnomer. “How did we allow this ugly term – black tax to be part of our vocabulary” asks Niq Mhlongo. “Andizi! Black Tax is a flawed social construct” as Phehelo J Mofokeng replies. While Sukoluhle Nyathi cites the urban dictionary to define black tax:

• Black Tax is the extra money black professionals are expected to give every month to support their less fortunate family and extended families.

• The burden of black tax causes financial distress to middle-class professionals as they have no savings left after having to share their salaries with the entire family.

• There is a notion that black people have to work and perform twice as white people to support immediate and extended families”.

Mzuvukile Maqetuka goes on to propose an alternative to the term ‘black tax’. “I believe we need to develop a new definition free of negative connotations and one that will reflect this phenomenon’s true origins, cause and intention. For this reason, I believe we should call it Collective Family Responsibility [CFR]”. What is undisputed, is that ‘black tax’ – regardless by name you call it – is the reality of the everyday black South African. We come from poverty stricken families and neighborhoods, and when one is able to earn an income – big or small – they carry the responsibly or burden to help others. The anthology takes us on a journey of what it means to carry this responsibility as a black South African.

The various contributors come from broadly similar backgrounds but with different stories and viewpoints. What brings the narrative together is the reality of poverty and the challenges of being black and growing up in a poor community. When reading the various anecdotes, one empathizes with what is being shared, and as the reader – you may notice that some of the events and incidents are very similar with what you have experienced or what you are going through.

A second theme is that of systemic oppression and injustice of colonialism and Apartheid which is the cause of structural poverty in South Africa. We cannot talk about economics and poverty without mentioning how black people end up being so poor.

This is how quintessentially a black person grows up: you are born into a poor family, you originally reside from the rural areas or the township, and you are raised by either your grandmother or both parents if you are fortunate. You go to an under-resourced primary school with abusive and under-qualified teachers who daily beat the “crap” out of you and tell you won’t amount to nothing in life. And you walk at least 40-minutes a trip to school with torn trousers and shoes with holes, you carry your books in a plastic bag and you don’t have a lunch box or money to buy food during lunch. Some of your peers drop out of primary school but you soldier on and make it to high school. When you get to high school the situation at home is the same, you try to make means by working at a car-wash after school so that you can help at home and have money for lunch at school. The teachers are still rude and they do not care for their work, they are still abusive and they could care less about how well you do at school. Instead, they date young girls from your class, maybe even a girl you were planning to ask out, but you can’t blame her because the teacher buys her food and gives her money and he even forges her report card when she fails. You carry on the fight and pass your grade-12 with distinctions or at least an exemption. You get a bursary or some form of education funding, and you commence with your studies. Tertiary is challenging because you don’t have a laptop and other study material, and worse you struggle with food. You have resilience and tenacity – you graduate and get an internship at some top company. You earn little money but you try to brake bread with your family. After completing your internship you finally get a job but you realize your salary is still small because you have moved to an apartment closer to work and you are planning to buy a car, but at same time you are trying to renovate your mother’s house and one of your siblings is now doing their first year, and you are helping them with study material, food and pocket money. This is the less dramatized version of the upbringing of a black person.

The burning issue – Black Tax – a burden or ubuntu

It’s lucrative that we as black South Africans go back to study the true history and culture of our forefathers. Ubuntu is the natural way of life – the universe permeates that there should be balance, harmony and order. Our ancestors carried this kind of wisdom and it was embedded in them. Ubuntu, which is fundamentally the wellness and well-being of society and every living being is different from the so called black tax, or can be viewed as an aspect of Ubuntu under abnormal conditions. This is because ‘black tax’ has its roots in systemic injustice that makes it virtually compulsory because the assistance is often for necessities – food, clothing, electricity, water, education etc. Monde Nkasawe emphasis this teaching by citing the African proverb: “Umtu ngumntu ngomnye umntu” and or “Isandla sihlamba esinye”. Angelena Makholwa also profoundly defines what ubuntu is: “Ubuntu can be described as the capacity in an African culture to express compassion, reciprocity, dignity, humanity and mutuality in the interest of building and maintaining communities with justice and mental caring”. Black tax is not simply Ubuntu, but if understood properly it can be seen as the spirit of black people who live in abnormal conditions to assist each other under – when properly understood It can be used as an instrument to change black people’s lives. Like when you pay your siblings tuition, that can be viewed as responsible black tax, as apposed to buying them expensive clothing brands; but I’m not saying it’s wrong buying your siblings expensive stuff.

This is a well written book with great insights and a compelling story. It is the story of the black South African, and the responsibility of having to be a breadwinner and help everyone out. Fundamentally, the book talks about the struggles of growing up in a poor home and carrying the responsibility of being a bread winner. But it’s also about the power and resilience or dignity of black people. I am glad we are having this conversation because that’s how we learn and come up with solutions. It’s still hard for a black South African to build generational wealth, because we were systematically stripped off all we had. We are trying to change the narrative but there’s still obstacles. With all that has been said, there’s hope.

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