Nobody likes to talk about it, yet we all know it exists. It’s one of the things that stops many working and middleclass Africans from flourishing, but we don’t often discuss if it’s a burden or just a responsibility we must carry without complaint.
HARDER TO CREATE WEALTH
This is what University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) honours student Nokubonga Komako looked into when she had to choose a topic for her research for her media and cultural studies honours qualification.
She looked at this situation in which black people have to share their salaries with immediate and extended family when they start working. It’s something that black people are born into, Nokubonga says, and it makes it harder for them to create wealth. She just graduated with her honours degree in April, and has personal experience with black tax.
THE VICIOUS CIRCLE
She wanted a topic she could relate to, the 27-year-old tells Move!. “I was trying to understand the situation I was in.” While growing up in Durban, as a younger sibling she was financially taken care of by her elder brother through school.
When she did her undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree and wanted to do a post-graduate qualification she couldn’t because she had to find a job to help out at home. “It was frustrating,” she recalls. It was after five years of working that she managed to do her post-graduate qualification.
UNDERSTANDING THE DEEPER ISSUES
Nokubonga interviewed 10 people from different races, age ranges and professions for her research. People weren’t too forthcoming about the issue, but those who talked felt they had no choice but to take the responsibility.
“Is it our culture or just a system that we find ourselves in? We need to understand the systems in place,” she insists. “I find that it’s difficult for us to talk about.” Yes, it is a responsibility, she says.
“But the issue is that families expect more than you can give. At the end of the day, you get into the debt trap.” This is something author Sam Beckbessinger believes in. In her book, Manage Your Money Like a Fu*&ing Grown Up, she tackles the issue of black tax.
“My generation is sometimes called the sandwich generation. Now, this may sound delicious (sandwiches? where?) but it actually refers to the fact that so many of us are expected to support children, and also our ageing parents,” she says.
“Because of history and culture, this expectation is felt most acutely by black South Africans, so it’s sometimes called ubuntu tax or black tax (although it can happen to anyone). Ubuntu tax often doesn’t mean supporting just parents, but also extended family, siblings and family friends.”
STEPS TO LESSEN THE LOAD
Nokubonga has discovered that young professionals can do something to lessen the load they are carrying. It’s important to not be emotional about your financial situation, whether to your family or peers.
“The solution is to learn to say ‘no’. If you give them a certain amount every month and they ask for more, then tell them you can’t,” she says. Trying to live beyond your means will only lead you into the dreadful path of being in debt.
Developing a saving culture is something Nokubonga stresses. “You don’t have to save half your salary or more than you can. You can start small, but the point is that you are learning a new behaviour and attitude towards money.”
Black tax isn’t necessarily a horrible thing, Sam says. “But, when added to the other systemic biases faced by black people, this does mean that any black South African who manages to save any money in their 20s deserves a parade in their honour.”
Living below your means is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty, they believe. You won’t live hand to mouth if you don’t overspend, Nokubonga says. You might also be able to save money for emergencies without feeling guilty.
“Tell your parents how much you earn so that they know they can’t ask you for money you don’t have.” And just because your peers have cars and others are buying properties doesn’t mean that you have to follow suit.
Nokubonga stresses that if you are honest about your income and what you can afford, you can survive. In her paper, she also addresses the importance of financial education now that the black community has access to finance.
“Financial education doesn’t have to even start at school. I must start at home learning to save. When your four year-old has R2, she must know that she has to put some of it in the piggy bank.”
It’s important to talk about money with family, Sam says in her book. “These conversations are awkward, but it would be more awkward to discover way down the line that you’ve been working off completely different assumptions. The more you know about what your family will need from you over the coming decades, the better you can plan for these needs in your financial plan.”
Supporting a number of people, especially at the start of your career, can be too much pressure. “It is unfair. I’m sure that no one knows better than you do about the difficult compromises that you have to make every day. Often, the reality for people is that their choices are not between saving and spending, but between saving and sending money home so that their family has enough to eat.”
Support can also mean a lot of things beyond money: providing a place to live, looking after children, making food and offering emotional support. Everyone plays a different role in a family.
“You may be in a position to offer financial support right now, but this doesn’t mean that the relationship is necessarily lopsided. Remember what they tell you in aeroplanes: ‘Make sure your own oxygen mask is secure before attempting to help those around you.’
It’s no good being so generous in the moment that you’re compromising your own long-term financial security.” You need to start saving enough for your own retirement so as not to perpetuate a cycle where someone else has to look after you, Sam stresses.
“It’s okay to have limits to your generosity, even when it comes to family.”