The countdown to December has begun. In six weeks a large chunk of South Africa’s black working and middle class will be putting in their leave days, packing their bags and reluctantly preparing their bank accounts for their annual trip home.
As if to create a virtual support group in which one can find solace — while navigating financial independence and setting boundaries for loved ones — Niq Mhlongo compiled Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu. Through observed and personal accounts from 23 contributors, the collection of essays tackles the phenomenon and how it unfolds in South Africa every day.
To put Black Tax together Mhlongo approached literary colleagues and friends whose work he had been following. These include Mohale Mashigo, Angela Makholwa, Lucas Ledwaba and the Mail & Guardian’s Thanduxolo Jika. “We can all talk about this topic but not everyone can write,” says Mhlongo during an impromptu phone call with the M&G.
Mhlongo is a prolific writer with five books to his name, but he chose to tackle this particular subject matter by calling for contributors because his understanding of black tax is “narrow”. By having the perspective of young and old, black men and women in urban and rural settings, Black Tax looks to “broaden the conversation and make it inclusive without it being conclusive”.
Compiling Black Tax began in September 2018. By the end of the year Mhlongo had a shortlist of contributors who had agreed to share their stories. The brief was simple: “write about your personal experiences and understanding of black tax” and have a first draft ready in two months.
The anthology went through a series of “rigorous” edits before the final manuscript was complete in June. The first set of edits saw Mhlongo requesting changes that had to do with developing the stories by asking the contributors to “elaborate on this, get rid of that and so forth”. After this came copy editing by Katlego Tapala and proofreading by Paul Wise.
In the resulting roadmap through black tax, the contributors unpack topics such as spatial planning, affirmative action, migration, child-headed households, life expectancy and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.
These are all subjects that we ceaselessly come across in the news and academic spaces, but in this book they are rendered with a human touch through the contributors’ intimate examples.
At some points the reader is offered insights into the uncensored disdain that comes with having to support relatives who refuse to seek employment. In others, the reader shares in the protagonist’s delight of bringing groceries home for the first time.
Although there may be a need to archive these recollections, the same-but-different nature of growing up in a black household poses a challenge. Because all the contributors were given the same brief, there is a monotony to the essays. Perhaps this is why the essays do not appear to follow a thematic order and why their grouping into chapters comes across as haphazard.
Many of the essays hop back and forth across the murky line that can exist between creative personal accounts and opinion. With contributors writing about how the reader “should” perceive black tax, the essays are prescriptive as they are descriptive. The writers’ suggestions about whether a reader should categorise the phenomenon as a burden or ubuntu come across as absolute. So even though Mhlongo’s call for various opinions was a democratic way of archiving this national discourse, the opinions read like a binary poll.
But this does not take away from the fact that the essays are generous outpourings that turn the domestic experience of black folk inside-out to reveal an essence that is so instinctive it often goes unnoticed. Examples range from firstborn children taking on the responsibility of a guardian, one’s home being open to people far removed from the immediate family or sending a portion of a bursary stipend home.
At its core, Black Tax is a socioeconomic dissection of a post-apartheid, capitalistic South Africa. The contributors are a sample of what it looks like when a black population that was dealt financial and spatial marginality tries to recover.
Mhlongo says the end goal for Black Tax is for the book to spark a national debate that will help black South Africans to “identify the concepts about the phenomenon that we can keep and those we should discard”.
On a second read, after considering the reasons for and against the phenomenon, Black Tax displays the relentless and selfless nature of the black excellence that Africans strive towards. All the grandmothers, mothers, sisters and other protagonists in Black Tax begin their personal journeys toward financial redemption from below zero. Yet at every stage of their success — no matter how slight — there’s always enough to go around.