Like so many things in South Africa, Black Tax: Burden …or Ubuntu? (Jonathan Ball Publishers) will be read and understood in very different ways depending on the colour of your skin. DIANE DE BEER gives some insight:
“Black tax,” writes the author/editor of the book, Niq Mhlongo, in his introduction, “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 all agree that ‘black tax’ is part of our daily lives.”
He notes that the book acknowledges these complexities and tries to represent a vast variety of voices on the subject. “I tried to get a diversity of viewpoints by incorporating young and old, urban and rural, male and female contributors.”
In an attempt to answer the question represented in the title, the idea of both the black family and the black middle class is interrogated. “As an ideological concept, the black family is constantly changing to accommodate new economic, political and social realities and opportunities.”
That is what makes this such a fascinating read because to some of us, it explains a concept we know about yet doesn’t affect us in exactly the same way (I know some people will argue that white people also pay forward but it is an entirely different concept) and for black people, it captures the differences of opinion. Your financial status because of the endemic poverty in this country will determine whether black tax will be either a burden or a blessing.
As Mhlongo underlines, “a black person may earn the same salary as their white counterparts, but they will have more financial responsibilities to their family, which is often trapped in poverty due to the inequalities that were engineered by the apartheid system.”
That in itself is a response to people who question those who still point a finger at apartheid when regarding daily obstacles in their lives. Yes we’ve been in a democracy now since 1994, but the effects are here to stay for generations to come. That’s why, amongst many other examples, it was and remains such an evil system.
There is one point of agreement, explains Mhlongo. “Black tax is a daily reality for nearly every black South African.” That is also why so few black people get to choose the career they want to pursue. “Black parents expect their children to study something that will allow them to earn a high salary one day.”
In closure he notes that the real significance of this book lies in the fact that it tells us more about the everyday life of black South Africans. “It delves into the essence of black family life and the secret anguish of family members who often battle to cope.”
It is all the above that makes this such an important read because it explains the lives of others – so important in a society so divided and often ignorant about each other.
In a chapter titled Black tax – what you give up and what you gain, Dudu Busani-Dube (fiction writer and journalist) writes “…because we are the children of domestic workers and gardeners, we have no ‘old money’ and nothing to inherit. It comes with some anger, too, and no, it is not directed at the families we have to take care of, but at the system that was created to ensure that no matter how much freedom we think we finally have, it will still take us decades to crawl out of the jungle we were thrown in. Black tax is not our culture, no it isn’t. It has everything to do with the position this country’s history has put us in.”
And the “burden” is difficult for those not participating to understand. Nkateko Massinga explains in Casting a Spell on Poverty (poet and 2019 fellow of Ebedi International Writer’s Residency): “My relationship with my family will continue to be difficult because I am yet to meet their expectations. … The expectations of black parents and their need to live a life that looks good to others creates an emotional tax on black professionals.”
Think of the “burden” when starting your first job and everything that goes with the insecurity and the novelty of being in that position. Now add black tax as yet another obstacle to just finding your feet as gently as possible while trying to cope.
As Sifizo Mzobe (writer, content editor and translator) underlines in The Hopes and Dreams of Black Parents: “When a black graduate gets a job, they have a lot to make up for compared to their colleagues from better economic backgrounds. They have a deep economic hole to fill before they can start with their own lives. And life is tough in today’s economy; sometimes impossibly tough.”
That is above and beyond the ordinary high levels of stress in today’s society!
Most of us can remember our first salaries and everything we needed to do with that money. It’s about living expenses and living a life at your own cost for the first time. Nothing comes easy and I couldn’t even begin to imagine also taking care of people in abject poverty or helping younger siblings with their studies.
Think of the unemployment numbers in our land and the crisis becomes even more dramatic and traumatic. It’s tough enough trying to cope with your immediate family’s survival. And then we’re not even thinking of those families working on coal mines or for Eskom who are scared that their jobs will soon become redundant. In those circumstances can one expect people to think of the greater good?
That is what is really so smart about this book. With many different voices, many different ideas surface, many of them landing hopefully in a receptive or at least educational place.
I remember years back reading Redi Tlhabi’s first book Endings & Beginnings: A Story of Healing. She told a story of how at the age of 10 or 11 she was scared of being raped on her way to school. At the time, thinking about my own youth, I wondered if I had even been aware of rape – all of which reminded me of the discrepancies in the conditions of people living in this country.
Black Tax makes very clear (and we read about it every day) that nothing in that sense has changed. In fact because of the horrific looting of the past decade, for the have nots, it has simply become untenable. And that is exactly what Niq Mhlongo’s exploration in Black Tax highlights.
It is insightful and should be compulsory reading. But apart from that, what a gripping way to get to know one another while adding greater understanding. As South Africans, we owe it to ourselves and one another.