When 'black tax' becomes a guilt trip
Young black professionals on coping with financial demands from back home
Most of us are familiar with the concept of “black tax”, but for those who are not, it is basically the notion of family or community members who feel entitled to being paid back by monetary means for all the years they invested in their children.
Be it education, clothing, or even the R5 coin one carried as pocket money to school, the reality is that some families who were instrumental in one’s upbringing may feel the need to be “paid back” ― especially if the subject of their “investments” is working and earning what is perceived to be a decent salary.
Although this practice has been happening for centuries, the truth is that it’s been pretty much a hush-hush affair and swept under the carpet ―a sort of tacit agreement between an individual and their family's bank accounts.
That is, until Togolese football player Emmanuel Adebayor finally decided to break his silence in 2015, and went public with how he had been suffering from black tax for years, becoming one of the only celebrities who have ever spoken up about the black tax phenomenon. Adebayor accused his family of milking him dry, and spoke up about how keeping up with their demands had depleted him.
While many people could relate to Adebayor’s tale of exploitation, there were a few who were on the fence about the matter of paying your family back: many felt that it was simply the right thing to do, if only as a sign of gratitude.
But is it really? While anyone would be irked by the notion of a family member blatantly demanding money or seeing one as a cash cow, could there be sneakier ways that our families use to exploit us?
Comedian Celeste Ntuli, who has a stand-up show appropriately called Black Tax, seems to think so, and says that the concept of black tax is twofold. “Look, there is nothing wrong with helping your family out, especially if you come from a disadvantaged background,” she says. “But some family members, or even the community at large, can take it a bit too far.”
Ntuli says that the festive season can be particularly tough. “You would find that people would automatically feel that because you came home for the holidays from Joburg, that you have to give them some sort of payment because you are ‘making it big’ in Joburg. My question is always, ‘Why don’t YOU come to Joburg to make it big yourself?’ It just doesn’t make sense,” she says.
Ntuli emphasises that some situations warrant taking a closer look and evaluating if you are actually helping family members or enabling them. “You would find that your sister expects you to fork out money because she needs help with her three children; that she is unemployed and that the children’s father is not around. Well, how did she get to the third child without realising that her formula was not a winning one? Why does she go around having unprotected sex, only to expect other people to pay for her baggage? ”
Ntuli says this type of situation is one where instead of helping one is, in fact, enabling the person. “Some people sit back and think that it is okay. What they need to do is get up and start making means to live, and to get themselves out of their current situations. I feel that black tax allows some people to be lazy.”
Ntuli says that some black tax can be inconspicuous, and that one may not even see it.
“You would find everyone is seemingly so happy to see you when you go home for the holidays, that is, until that dreaded ‘Can I have R20 for cool drink?’ plea comes up. My answer is always no. Instead, what I can give you is advice on how to get yourself out of the situation you are currently in, so you can afford your own cool drink. Throwing money… is simply exacerbating the situation,” she says.
block_quotes_start One really has to take a step back and evaluate if you are being manipulated,or if there is a genuine need that warrants you helping out block_quotes_end
Thirty-two-year-old single mother Tshepiso Shongwe, who is a customer relations consultant at one of the major banks, says she can relate to the inconspicuous black tax phenomena, and that whenever she goes home to the Free State, she must always ensure that she has money on her.
“My home is down the street from the main road where I usually get off the taxi from Johannesburg, and I promise you, I can easily spend R100 on my way to my house. It’s almost like people have a certain sense of entitlement about being given money or gifts if you do not stay in the same area as them, because they tend to have the misconception that wherever you are, you are striking it rich!” she says.
Shongwe says black tax can be based on how you look and what you seemingly can afford, which can make you the victim of a feeding frenzy. She says she even dreads going home for the holidays this year. “Things really got crazy when I managed to buy myself a modest car last year.
People start automatically assuming that you have money, and start checking out what clothes you are wearing and how well kept your weave is,” she says. “Even the mere fact that you have a weave automatically makes you Oprah Winfrey in their eyes. It almost makes me not want to go home this December."
Shongwe says family members are no better, and tend to have expectations about being bought certain things. “I mean I have no problem with buying groceries when I'm home, and helping my parents out where I can, but it really does get irritating when even my grown cousins’ kids come up to me and ask me to buy them a certain brand of shoes, or the latest play station game.
“Where am I meant to get the money? It’s just not fair! Worse, if you tell them that you don’t have money, you will always get that sceptical look of disapproval.”
Shongwe says people forget she has her own responsibilities in Johannesburg. “I have bills to pay, I have rent, accounts, and a life to lead over there,” she notes.
Social worker Khumoetsile Tsimane says that when it comes to black tax, it can be a double-edged sword. “One really has to take a step back and evaluate if you are being manipulated, or if there is a genuine need that warrants you helping out,” she says.
Tsimane says it is important to differentiate between needs and wants. ‘You should never really feel an obligation to pay for certain things if there is no genuine need for it. Helping one's elderly parents who do not have capacity to fend for themselves speaks to one's humanity, but it should never be looked at as an obligation, or worse, a debt,” she says. “When you help you parents out financially, do so because firstly you can afford to, and because it feels right. Do not ever allow yourself to be manipulated into it.”
When it comes to extended family members, Tsimane says this is where one should tread carefully. “It goes back to the needs and wants thing we spoke about earlier. Are there dire situations that you can find family members in that warrant you stepping in to offer help? Absolutely. But make sure that it is help you are offering, and not spoon feeding,” she says.
“Do not allow yourself to be the victim. Instead, offer them practical solutions to their problems, like offering to help them draft a professional CV to start job hunting, for example. But do not ever buy into the manipulation that can be black tax. Remember, you can buy them fish to eat for today, but teaching them to fish will be see them being able to feed themselves for a lifetime."
•This article was originally published in the November issue of S Mag, a free lifestyle magazine distributed with the Sowetan newspaper.