Ferial Haffajee: Make black tax deductible

Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)
Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)

There's a credit that we don't often enough pat ourselves on the back for as South Africans. Every single month, come a downgrade, come yawning budget deficit or widening trade balance, we pay 18 million social grants in a form of solidarity to compatriots.

I say 'we' because it's solidarity from all to all – after all, it's paid from personal, corporate and VAT collections. It is huge; almost certainly the largest form of social solidarity on the continent and it is up there among the better systems in the developing world.

Of course, a good society would more quickly be weaning that number down through growth and employment. There is an additional solidarity system that is at work in the form of informal remittances across families – the black solidarity system where professionals support the extended family in ways beautifully chronicled in the book Black Tax – Burden or Ubuntu, a collection of essays edited by the award-winning author Niq Mhlongo.

He writes, "How did we allow this ugly term – 'black tax' – to become part of our vocabulary? And by 'we' I mean all the people who, like me, have lived and benefited from this informal system of sharing and helping each other out.

"All along, I was convinced that giving is a sign of ubuntu, one of the oldest African traditions. To me, helping members of my family is a non-negotiable responsibility – a symbol of the continuity of time and the immortality of the family soul. As Africans, we live a communal life, don't we?"

Breast-beating and brouhaha

Author Bhekisisa Mncube chimes in: "There has been a lot of breast-beating and brouhaha around the notion of 'black tax'. According to the 'woke' generation, this is a colloquial term used to describe young black people – especially males – who share their after-tax income with immediate and extended family members, while they are expected to manage their own expenses, which may include purchasing a nice car and/or a house…I prefer to view so-called black tax as a modern form of family investment for the future of the clan."

Mncube's definition reveals that solidarity comes with sacrifice and trade-offs – a theme that emerges through the book.

In the essay called 'The door at 1842 Mankuroane Street that let black tax in," author Outwile Tsipane writes about his 88-year-old gran whose home in Vryburg had an open door and a big and expansive heart for people who needed everything from a home to warm tea and hot scones. Mhlongo writes that to call this system of solidarity a 'tax' is to misunderstand African notions of the family which is far different from the notions of the Western family that too often still defines how South Africa considers linkage and community.

Flowing from this is that this form of giving is neither exceptional nor limited. "The one thing that contributors seem to agree on is that black tax is a daily reality for nearly every black South African, from sons and daughters who build homes for their parents to brothers and sisters who put siblings through school, and to the student who diverts bursary money to put food on the table back home.

"My personal observation is that most black people become breadwinners at an early age, some even at 18, and are then expected to be 'deputy parents'."

The book is a beautiful read because Mhlongo has collected an awesome set of essayists to write on the topic. But beyond the literary, it throws up a fiscal challenge. Should this form of social solidarity not be a declarable expense that can qualify for a tax rebate from SARS?

The authors would likely baulk at such a suggestion for many write that it is not regarded as a burden, but it is an expense and it is expensive and often it fills the gap when state support is too small. SARS is likely to write off this suggestion far more quickly than it will a depreciating asset, but this form of solidarity deserves political recognition, and what better way than back in your pocket?

*Black Tax - Burden or Ubuntu is edited by Niq Mhlongo and published for Jonathan Ball Publishers. It retails at R260.00

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