Black tax is a term for the dilemma characteristically faced by black people, usually, the youth who are expected not just to fend financially for themselves or their new budding families, but any younger, older or less fortunate members of their extended families. This usually results in these men and women taking longer to achieve their life goals because of the additional financial burden.

Why ‘black’?

This is called a ‘black’ tax because it almost uniquely affects black people. There are several factors which give rise to these expectations. To begin with, most black people come from poor, working-class backgrounds where the very act of educating a child up to high school is considered an uphill task. Parents and guardians have to make what they usually consider to be ‘sacrifices’ in the upbringing of their children. In addition, Africans traditionally have stronger familial attachments.

This means is that the more financially successful you are considered to be than the rest of your relatives; the more you will be called upon to assist others. This ‘tax’ is therefore effectively a handicap for the more prosperous members of a family.

How it all began

Most Zimbabwean black people come from communal farming backgrounds. A few decades ago people led simpler lives; they raised bigger families for farm labour, with a larger family being almost always a sign of prosperity. Unfortunately, as the population grew, the amount of good farming land shrank. More herds were competing for dwindling pastures in our communal lands. To make matters worse, families were now expected to send all those numerous children to school.

By the more demanding standards of a rapidly industrialising world, the men and women who headed these families did not have any useful skills so they were forced to support huge families on the salaries of unskilled labourers. With the breadwinners of these large homesteads struggling, any member of the family who came of age was expected to assist as soon as they received their first paycheck. Thus the black tax system was born.

So this combination of poor farming land, the sudden switching of children from assets to responsibilities and the induction of Africans into a modern economy they were unprepared for created a cycle of poverty that most black communities find difficult to shake off for generations.

The good

Even though some consider this to be a burden, we are oftentimes past and future beneficiaries of this system. In a country like Zimbabwe where periodic economical upheavals lay waste to pension funds and most of us never invest in anything that will take care of us past retirement age, we usually desperately need the younger and healthier members of our extended families during old age or illness. This is made more important by the fact that we do not even have enough institutions to take care of the elderly.

This system also encourages altruism, which helps in the elevation of the economic statuses of more members of the family and ultimately whole communities. One of the more optimistic views about this system is that if it is done properly, it can actually improve the economic fortunes of subsequent generations. It ensures that the more vulnerable members of our society such as orphans and the disabled are taken care of.

Like in most parts of the world, education – particularly higher education is a very expensive proposition. If older members of extended families help the younger ones to get a tertiary education, this benefits society as a whole. Mutual assistance between family members can delay the need for early employment among younger people which can also allow them to get higher educational qualifications.

The bad

At its core, the system is loosely based on reciprocity. This means that any apparent and deliberate failure to honour it means that you are unlikely to benefit from it in the future yourself. Society generally disapproves of those who evade this ‘tax’. Failure to honour what many consider to be your responsibility will usually result in estrangement from family members.

These responsibilities are usually a major source of strain between women and their in-laws. Since African society imposes gender roles that place more extended family responsibility on men than women it is usually the latter who get vilified when the support provided by their spouses is considered inadequate.

With this much responsibility, those who are affected generally take longer, if ever, to achieve their goals or to reach certain life milestones. They may take longer to marry, buy homes or even to start businesses. Some are unable to pursue further studies as they have to find work as soon as possible because of the various responsibilities.

Sometimes this tax manifests itself as widespread nepotism in African public institutions. This is not normally much of a problem but if everyone in upper management is trying to fill these institutions with their respective clans this can quickly turn into a crisis.

Spreading your salary too thin also means that you will be involuntarily leaving far below your means.

The ugly

If there is a clash of expectations, the system spreads resentment in families. The beneficiaries of these transactions may feel like not enough is being done, while the other side feels like too much is being demanded of them.

This tax also effectively makes poverty hereditary. If a younger generation is forced to take care of an older one to the detriment of its own fortunes, it follows that the same would be expected from the one after it. This is how poverty passes down generations in African societies.