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Let’s talk about ‘black tax’

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost … he simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American … ” — W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

I was recently jolted back to reality while listening to eNCA and doing some mundane activity. I was aware of the headlines coming on and then there was a feature on “black tax”. It explained the phenomenon known to many young, black professionals (especially those who are first-generation, university graduates). I was stunned because it attempted to explain something my friends and I had only spoken about in private or mentioned in emails — the woes of being an adult and paying “black tax”.

For those who are privileged enough not to experience or know about “black tax”, it is the lived experience of many young professionals who have to share their salary with their family and extended family. This could mean supporting a younger sibling by paying their school fees in order to lessen the burden for the parents, extending the family home and buying new furniture and in the event of a sudden death in the family, covering some of the expenses that arise. The list is endless. These are a few examples of how young, black professionals have to share their salary. There are other forms of “black tax” such as black professionals having to work twice as hard in order to prove themselves in many corporate spaces (a conversation for another day). But some have argued that “black tax” is rather a case of the “real financial and social implications of being a member of one or more of those groups [with] people who are deliberately and systemically denied opportunities”.

money

While listening to the eNCA feature I thought about the collective experience of supporting our families as young professionals while those who are more privileged have holidays abroad, live without car instalments and can buy property at a young age or simply live with the ease with which an unburdened income might allow (some might be surprised to know this group includes black people). On a superficial level I feel exposed when the issue of “black tax” is spoken about. I thought talking about “black tax” was something we did in our private spaces while talking to friends. The public is not supposed to know about this “burden” we bear as young professionals because people might feel sorry for us or worse, laugh at us.

The truth is, our generation is not the first to experience “black tax”. When my mother started working in the 1970s she recalls handing over her measly teacher’s salary to her mother without question. I think she expected a similar courtesy from my sisters and me. In our efforts to gain financial independence we decided to give my mother a fraction of our salaries, often begrudgingly. Unlike us, I think my mother handed over her salary with a little more pride as the first professional in her family. Instead of viewing our roles as providers and helpers in our families with pride, we use the language of taxation: someone taking something from you with little willingness from you. I suspect that part of the burden of “black tax” is that our financial independence is not fully recognised and we cannot live the lives our education promised us.

The issue of “black tax” makes me uncomfortable not because I feel like the black experience is being exposed and perhaps misconstrued (in the name of making news rather than thinking through the complexities of black life). I am uncomfortable because it is also incorrectly defined. I would argue that “black tax” is a question of class rather than of race. As it is pointed out by Eusebius McKaiser and Ayabonga Cawe in the feature mentioned above, “black tax” is also about a cultural dynamic in black families where families are larger than the nuclear family and therefore one has more people “counting on you” in the form of financial support. Of course in South Africa people whose life experience is defined by this are overwhelmingly young, black people.

The unintended consequences are complex and even hurtful. By highlighting “black tax” those who we support are painted as people that are lazy rather than people living in an economic, political and social climate that renders them unemployed and often unemployable. The discourse of “black tax” also diminishes the effects apartheid has had on black families. It’s not a mistake that many black parents cannot pay for their children’s tuition, it’s not a mistake that some of our parents do not have retirement annuity funds and savings or any kind of financial safety nets.

Cheap labour during apartheid made it nearly impossible for many parents to consider the financial future of their children and for themselves. Unlike more privileged young professionals who have a “starter pack” in the form of a car, university fees paid for and rent covered by parents, many black professionals don’t start with a positive bank balance. Their salary is already accounted for by others in the family who will benefit from their financial success. And unfortunately, for many working-class families, this is still the case. Therefore, black life, yet again, is a problem that needs to be solved.

What does “black tax” mean for black life? It seems black people are at the centre of the economic question yet again. More importantly, as black people, what are we doing about our subjectivity in this issue? How do we ensure that we make the proverbial circle bigger for those who need help in our families but also make sure that we remain critical of our history and current experience without becoming victims of the economy once again?

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11 Comments

  1. YajChetty YajChetty 19 May 2015

    There is nothing wrong with supporting family and community. However the tax system must be radically changed to address the legacy of the past. Income tax and VAT must be scrapped and replaced with a LAND VALUE TAX and the inevitable carbon tax. For more info on land tax see http://www.sacprif.org.za

  2. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 19 May 2015

    Would you like to know a secret? My grandparents had the same tax, and they were white. Many white people still have that tax. It is a progression. My great grandparents did not know what a pension was. My grandfather was forced to have a pension plan with his job (you couldn’t take money out of it or borrow money from it in his time) . By the time my parents came along, they had a milder tax burden – purely because the pension was now helping out. My generation still had to do the bits and pieces help but it was not that onerous. It is a progression.

    There is no shame in helping family or extended family. Most of us have someone that we are helping through school or making sure they get to the doctor. It is not something you should be doing for bragging rights, but a big heart is never something you should be ashamed of

  3. ♡ Robz ♡ ♡ Robz ♡ 20 May 2015

    Hey there, I agree with you completely. I find that my parents did not make it compulsory for my older siblings to help with my fees, as they are still working, but those that chose to, my older sisters both of them, I will forever be grateful to them and when done willingly it builds a bond within the family,
    it is like giving back to those that gave all they could, and it should not be called a tax, it can also come in the form of physical things like furniture, fixing the home driveway etc etc..nothing to be ashamed of

  4. Alastair Grant Alastair Grant 20 May 2015

    There’s no question that the distribution of wealth within the extended family is very different among black and white people… at least, it has been so in the past. Right now we’re on the cusp of a fundamental shift in our socio-economic culture as black families increasingly adopt the nuclear format of white families, with financial support outside of that nucleus seen as generosity rather than obligation, as you have illustrated so well, Athambile.

    This shift carries very important – but seldom articulated – implications for our societies and our economies. It has already impacted on government expenditure, as social grants have sought to fill the financial void in which many people find themselves. The disproportionate impact of HIV on young adults is also playing a key role. The remittances of people from developed economies to developing economies – which keep many third-world countries alive – are drying up.

    I very much doubt that this is a reversible process. After applying yourself to your studies and clawing your way up the organisational ladder, the lure of the leafy suburbs is clearly more powerful than the satisfaction of knowing that nobody in your gene pool is living in a shack. In centuries to come, we’ll all play by Scandinavian (or Singaporean) rules, or by some economic system that hasn’t yet been invented, simply because every other model has failed.

  5. Rambo Rambo 21 May 2015

    I’ve paid the school & university fees of all my siblings & still provide financial support to my mother. I don’t bat an eyelid whilst doing so.

    I do recall that whilst growing up many people from my village chipped in…some were not even my relatives. Like the local spaza shop owner who was so glad one of “their own” was going off to university. Or the only guy who owned a car in the village who offered to drive me to the bus stop. Or my grandfather who carried my suitcase on his head – all excited that his angel was off to big things. Or my mother who roasted some mealies so that I could have something to eat along the way.

    I am who I am today because of the generosity of others. Today I’m blessed to be in a position to financially help out others – & I have found that the more I give, the better my financial health improves.

  6. Mark Linderoth Mark Linderoth 21 May 2015

    Problem with land based tax is it just get passed onto the tenants in the form of higher rentals. The ‘wealth tax’ is an incremental scale based on what you earn (higher earnings/higher percentage of tax on earnings), so in essence this addresses previously disadvantaged. PS – Can’t open the link?

  7. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 25 May 2015

    Hey there Robz. Yes, I remember going ‘shopping’ at the homes of family members for odd cups and chairs when I got my first flat. What a hodgepodge of castoffs we started out with. Nothing matched anything for many years – it was good times though.

  8. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 25 May 2015

    How would that help, Yaj? You’d just get the really rich folk renting and becoming richer and the poor subsistence farmer getting poorer

  9. flyboy flyboy 8 June 2015

    All good families (except the really rich) have some form of that tax – BUT – BIG BUT: It is essential for ALL of them to face it head-on and TALK and PLAN;
    There are some things you CANNOT spend on (lounge furniture, TV sets, cars) and you – adult, educated you – have to make that clear upfront.
    Or it’s all downhill, leading to resentment and break-up – or continued poverty.

  10. flyboy flyboy 8 June 2015

    “(distribution of wealth within the extended family)” – Very different because of race or because of wealth? I think the pattern changes as one moves up the wealth scale. (that being individual, family or national wealth – they all seem to trend towards a more insular future).

  11. flyboy flyboy 8 June 2015

    Problem with wealth tax is the wealthy lobby for loopholes, and actual tax paid starts to get very different from the supposed scale. Tax reform also needs to be towards simpler tax methods.
    STEP ONE should be stopping the “personhood” of corporations. Companies are NOT people.

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