EXTRACT | Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu?

Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu? (Cover supplied)
Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu? (Cover supplied)

What do you do when a complete stranger turns up on your doorstep, asking for a place to stay while he looks for work? Or when a distant relative asks you to take in a truant son who had dropped out of school and was hanging around with the wrong crowd?

Do you flatly turn them down on the grounds that you have seven children to raise and that your home is only a three-bedroomed house with just enough space for your family? Or do you try to explain that you are under a lot of strain as you are in the process of building up your business and money is really tight?

Well, not in the Ledwaba household of the 1980s and early 1990s. At one stage there were as many as 20 people: cousins, children of acquaintances of our parents, great-aunts, uncles and aunts, as well as a few strangers, living with us in our home in Soshanguve.

This was part of the price my parents paid for being among the few in our family who had broken away from their rural roots and set up home in a township. The laws of apartheid condemned those living in rural areas to a life where they were far removed from tertiary institutions and job opportunities.

So, by virtue of us living in a township, our house became a transit station of sorts, a refuge for those in search of economic opportunities or an education. It also served as a rehabilitation centre of sorts, for relatives who had gone off the rails. Some had fallen victim to the system, in that they found themselves idle in the villages after completing high school because they couldn't find work. Some fell in with the wrong crowd, because their parents did not have the means to enroll them in institutions of higher learning.

Since my parents lived in a township and had their own business, this gave the impression that they were well off and more capable of carrying and feeding extra mouths. Of course, this was far from the truth.

My parents faced struggles of their own and they had to run the rat race like any other parents. Still, they were products of their own beliefs. Their approach was that you never turned away a visitor or a person in need, lest one day you turn away a messenger of God bringing blessings. And so, we got used to strangers randomly walking into our lives, becoming part of our household and family, living rent-free and being supported by our parents.

Because many of those who ended up in our home were older than us children, this meant we often lost the privilege of sleeping in our beds and instead slept on foam mattresses on the floor. We shared everything and there was no special treatment for us. Rather, at times, it seemed as if our parents were more concerned about those they had taken in than their own flesh and blood. It was not uncommon for one to be ordered to give away an item of clothing or even a plate of food.

At mealtimes, the table in our kitchen and the wall cabinets would be packed full of dishes. A stranger who didn't live with us would have been forgiven for thinking we were hosting a gathering when that was in fact our daily reality.

I must say, though, that we didn't see anything wrong with our situation. We were happy and became accustomed to this kind of life, even if our neighbours always found it an intriguing arrangement. To us, used to at least 15 people in the house at any given time, it felt strange to have only three or four people at home. More appeared so much merrier.

In the process several special memories were made and we also learnt valuable life lessons. We learnt the true meaning of the phrase 'sharing is caring': humility and loving without judging people based on their social status or background.

Of course, there was a downside to this set-up. Looking back today, I realise we never really spent quality time with our parents and didn't always get enough attention. Even an outing to a football match or the zoo was often not about us children and our parents alone, since there were always other people in tow.

My poor sisters spent most of their youth cooking and cleaning for the household. In between school and growing up, they were doing more work than most domestic workers could handle. I guess this is the price that is paid by many families, like mine, that opened their hearts and doors to those coming to areas near the city in search of a better life.

I doubt that white families at the time ever had such challenges because the laws of the land had forced black people to become third-class citizens in their own country. They were restricted in every imaginable way. Their freedom of movement was curbed and tightly controlled. They could not live where they wished. They could not study wherever it was most convenient. They were forced by law to live in areas deprived of many essential amenities.

Relatives would travel by bus from far-flung areas and stay over in our home just so they could visit a doctor or sort out personal business. This was long before the era of cellphones, so visitors would show up unannounced. Sometimes, this meant that instead of two chicken feet with your pap,you only had one; or just pap with gravy, while the chicken feet went to the unannounced visitor.

Grumbling about such matters was simply an invitation to trouble; either a tongue lashing from both parents, or worse, an encounter with my father's feared brown belt. Like gold, visitors were treasured and treated with the greatest love and care.

Despite the negative side to this kind of black tax, I'm proud of my parents for the sacrifices they made. They were simple people who recognised the individual's obligation to serve humankind even when circumstances are difficult.

Some of the people they helped went on to make something of their lives. Many became professionals and responsible adults. Yes, some may have fallen along the way, but to this day, they still recognise our parents for giving them an opportunity to become better people.

The open-door policy exposed us to all sorts of colourful characters; like the great aunt who always grumbled and complained of a sore back whenever she saw new visitors. It was a way of ensuring she kept her single bed and was not relegated to the floor as was customary.

Then there was the cousin who always appeared to fake a fit whenever she was in some sort of trouble, and another from the rural areas who had the habit of applying roll-on deodorant to his jacket in the mistaken belief that it was perfume.

One of the strangest encounters happened sometime around 1986, when a stranger showed up on our doorstep. He told the elders his name was David Dlamini and that he had come all the way from Swaziland to look for work in Pretoria. He didn't know a living soul in South Africa and was looking for a place to stay.

For some reason I have yet to understand, in a township with more than 10 000 households, he chose us, the Ledwaba family. Our house was not along the main road, on a street corner or even near a bus terminus, taxi rank or station. Still, this man chose to knock on our door.

Our parents accepted him into their home. There was not even an attempt to verify if this David Dlamini was indeed David Dlamini as he alleged. He could have been Moses Masuku or Patrick Gamedze, for all we knew. Perhaps he was Bafana Dlamini or Jabu Zikalala, even. But that’s how it was in our home.

Dlamini, whom we children called the Mswati behind his back, became part of the family. We mimicked the manner in which he spoke and snored as he slept on a foam mattress on the floor of our crowded bedroom.

Not long after he came to live with us, Mswati got a job at the Fresh Produce Market in Pretoria. He often brought home fresh bananas and other fruit. He didn't stay there long, though, because he found another job working for some mlungu in town. One day he came home in a rather chaotic state, barefoot with torn clothes. His boss had beaten him up. And had fired him. But he just laughed it off.

Mswati disappeared from our life just as quickly as he had become a part of it. One day, he announced that he had found a place to stay in Winterveldt. My parents gave him blankets and other things required to start a new home. We never saw him again. After all these years I am still curious about why Mswati picked us.

I can't stop wondering if he was perhaps sent by the gods. I don't know. But he wasn't the first or last to pass through our home.

One day when my brother and I came home for the school lunch break, we found a light-skinned, bearded gentleman seated on a sofa in the lounge, with a pile of bags next to him. After exchanging greetings, he immediately asked for tea, which we served.

That evening we learnt that he would also stay with us. He was the nephew of a man my father had met at a football match some years before – they were both ardent Moroka Swallows fans. And so, when this fellow Swallows fan told my father his nephew was coming to study at the technikon in Soshanguve and had no money to pay for lodgings, my parents took him in without hesitation. He, too, became a part of the family for a good year.

By then my parents had already converted part of the garage into a bedroom where I slept with my cousins and other male occupants of the house. We made many good memories and lasting bonds in that little garage.

If the people who passed through our house during that decade and a half when our parents were still alive had all signed their names on the walls of our house, there would be very little space left. Today I can only thank the gods for giving us parents who never shied away from confronting this so-called black tax.

* This extract was taken from Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu? written by Lucas Ledwaba, edited by Niq Mhlongo, published by Johanthan Ball Publishers.

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