The Treachery of Words: A Review of ‘Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu?’

AiW Guest: Thulani Angoma-Mzini

In the anthology Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu (2019), award winning author Niq Mhlongo convenes a parliament of the who’s who of South African literati to dissect the term ‘black tax’. In South Africa the term originates from first generation black middle-class individuals decrying the overwhelming pressure they experience in trying to fell poverty from their family trees. Corporate salaries are often split between suburban rentals, vehicle instalments, peri-urban home renovations, and sibling and parental maintenance. In frustration, the black professional has coined the term ‘black tax’ to describe these responsibilities. But language is treacherous. ‘Black tax’ creates a Venn diagram between a Western conception of a levy and the African philosophy of ubuntu. This anthology explores the struggle for self-determination in the context of collective responsibility.

Black Tax CoverMost of the essays in the collection distinguish ‘black tax’ from ubuntu. Some distinctions are subtle, as in novelist Dudu Busani-Dube’s essay, ‘Black tax – what you give up and what you gain’, in which she states that ‘Black tax isn’t our culture’ (p. 20) and attributes the pressures of remittances to a lack of money back home, a poverty caused by South Africa’s history of racial subjugation. Some distinctions are vehement in their rejection of the intersection of ‘black tax’ and ubuntu, as in Phehello Mofokeng’s essay titled ‘Andizi! Black tax is a flawed social construct’ in which he argues that the two are parallels that shall never meet. He identifies expectations of reciprocity as the differentiating factor by stating that ‘if you call it black tax, it means you expect something in return…. what I do for family members – up to a reasonable limit – is not owed to me’ (p. 113).

Almost all the authors in the collection identify the issue with ‘black tax’ as unrealistic expectations from family members. In this light, award winning novelist Sifiso Mzobe invents a term for the fantastical trajectories that black parents project on their children. He calls it the ‘perfectus trajectoriam’ – the expectation that the black child

‘…[will be] brilliant at school… attend church religiously…[not] smoke or drink alcohol… get a bursary to study at a prestigious university… aces the degree in record time and becomes a doctor, engineer or accountant… sends home a constant stream of black tax every month… and everyone lives happily ever after’ (pp. 169 – 170).

The overwhelming pressure, anxiety and depression that result from this are echoed in two other essays: ‘Casting a spell on poverty’ and ‘Hypothetically peaking’, written by poet Nkateko Masinga and novelist Chwayita Ngamlana respectively. These two creatives tell personal stories of disappointing their parents by failing at the ‘perfectus trajectoriam’.

The anthology generally portrays the impositions of colonialism and apartheid on the black lived experience. This is reflected in the biographies of the essayists that share the motif of parents struggling to make ends meet, the burden of study loans during and post university, obligations beyond the nuclear family and black sheep siblings, uncles, and aunts plagued by unemployment and in search of benefactors. All these traits are inherited from the apartheid project whose separatist system left black homes and families without land or capital, and deprived of decent living standards. The authors express in both explicit and subtle ways that this is the true black tax; the levies that black people must pay to earn their lives.

Niq Mhlongo

Niq Mholongo

Throughout the collection the term ‘black tax’ creates tension. Its phrasing encroaches on descriptions of the collective responsibilities encompassed in ubuntu. Ubuntu is the African philosophy that offers a counter to Rene Descartes ‘cogito ergo sum’ by acknowledging that ‘I am because you are’. In ubuntu the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Cartesian (read Western) ideas of utility, however, work within a zero-sum context and deal specifically in economic terms. In the Western sense, reciprocity is expected and demanded. That brand of ‘quid pro quo’ – inherent in the name ‘black tax’ – creates a debtors and creditors dynamic, a Eurocentric view of value. African utility, however, is not linear in that way as it is demonstrated in essays by Busani-Dube and Nukubonga Mkhize, for example. Busani-Dube presents a complex situation wherein a woman begrudgingly supports her cousin S’lindile who has three children. The benefactor ‘might want to get out of this arrangement…but her conscience won’t let her forget that without S’lindile, there would be nobody […] to take care of their elderly mother’ (p. 22).

In ‘The power of black tax’, Mkhize laments about her brother Jomo whom she calls ‘the hood rat’ who doesn’t contribute to the household and drinks excessively. She points out however that ‘[…] when we have [a traditional ceremony] or a funeral at home, [Jomo] is usually the go to guy for everything’ (p. 67). While S’lindile and Jomo easily fit the profile of the manipulative family member who abuses everyone’s generosity, it is worth considering that the utility available for assisting them might not conform to the capitalist rubric of return on investment. These two dependants may be financially weak but both have crucial roles to play in their families.

Mhlongo’s essay, ‘Keeping our ancestral spirit of ubuntu alive’, puts forward a suggestion for the renaming of what is known as ‘black tax’. He calls it ‘family upliftment’. This rearticulation recentres the objectives of family support away from obligation towards benevolence and compassion. He identifies the primary objective of ubuntu as the maintenance of the umbilical cord that links black people to their ancestors, ensuring the continuance of ancestral spirits indefinitely into the future. For him, ‘family upliftment’ is about the immortality of the African spirit.

Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu is its most beautiful, creative, and powerful when it deals with the subject through the personal essay. Two such essays are haunting in their depiction of the afflictions of ‘black tax’; Bongani Kona’s ‘The circle will not be unbound’ and Lidudumalingani’s ‘Sacrificing the self for the whole’. Both authors use the very personal encounters of having to take responsibility at a time of sorrow (in the former) and enduring the generational poverty that plagues black people from primary school (in the latter). Kona sums up the labour of carrying family burdens in words reminiscent of Kahlil Gibran: ‘love is work. And sometimes that work is hard’ (p. 125).

In her essay ‘The Black Tax club’, Mohale Mashigo suggests that names can manifest what they signify. This highlights the danger with sticking to the term ‘black tax’: it may usurp all power from the philosophy of ubuntu. Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu? makes it clear that this would be unfortunate. The term ‘black tax’ is laden with negative connotations that induce a sense of wanting to break free from the community of ubuntu. It is then dangerous to conflate the abusive nature of the term with the inclusive philosophy of ‘family upliftment’. Helping to build up your family home, supporting your siblings’ schooling, sending an uncle bus fare should not be considered as black tax, but rather, ubuntu.

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@VuyoMzini

Thulani Angoma-Mzini is a South African wannabe creative non-fiction writer with a passion for reading and a desire to write more.

Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu? is published in South Africa by Jonathan Ball and is available internationally and online through a number of retailers.
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.’ – Niq Mhlongo


Categories: Reviews - Books

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