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Family Obligations of First-Borns: Women’s Reflections on the Meaning of Black Tax in a Rural Eastern Cape Village

Updated: Mar 29

Written by: Nombulelo Shinta



The term "Black Tax" refers to money transferred by members of the growing South African black middle class to their immediate and extended families to assist them with social mobility and survival. This practice has been embraced and normalised for years, but recently, South African celebrities and scholars have started speaking up about the negative impacts of Black Tax on their own class advancement and mental health. The current generation appears to struggle with the expectation of Black Tax, with many complaining that the demands from their relatives have become overwhelming. This has created tensions between generations often leading to older family members viewing the refusal of the younger generation to pay as unacceptable, branding them as ungrateful and spoiled.

 

Recently, there has been an outcry, especially on social media platforms such as Facebook and TikTok, with young professionals expressing their distress over the burden of Black Tax. They feel that the pressure to send money home is affecting their mental health. Interestingly, most of those struggling with the obligations of Black Tax are young women. Young men with incomes seem to be less concerned with maintaining their rural family home or even building one for the future.



Figure 1: Ikhona, the founder of a Facebook blog called "Keep Moving Dadewethu,"


On her Facebook page, Ikhona went live and shared with her audience how she ended up on depression medication because of Black Tax. She spoke about "How my own mom sent me into depression, Black Tax is real. A lesson to learn, I will share my lesson - if it speaks to you, may you heal and may you learn." Other young people commented, sharing their stories of struggling to pay back loans pressured upon them by their parents.


In the Eastern Cape village of Gwaba, where I conduct my fieldwork, some households include a daughter or son working in town who typically only return home during the December holidays. Throughout the year, they are expected or willingly to send money to their parents and relatives back in the rural Eastern Cape. Since elderly people in the Eastern Cape often rely on their old age grants, this money helps them maintain their Stokvel payments and homes.

 

In two of the life histories I collected from Gwaba Village, women in their early 30s with current employment shared with me that as first-borns, they are expected to bring money home to their parents and siblings. One woman expressed particular distress because her younger sister was the only one working. In Xhosa culture, the expectation is that the first-born child will become a custodian of the family homestead and provide sustained financial support to the family. Therefore, it is considered a disgrace in some black families for the younger sibling to support the home while the firstborn is unemployed. In the case of this life history, not only was the older sibling concerned that her younger sister was providing support, but also that she would have to forfeit her respected position.

 

There remains a great expectation in the villages for successful family members to continue supporting the rural homestead. While young professionals voice their pain, the elderly have also spoken up on the issue. Many elderly people have dismissed negative comments on Black Tax, arguing that those who complain about it are spoilt and do not understand the spirit of Ubuntu. They label them as ungrateful and disrespectful of their black history. The older generation explains that due to the Apartheid government, they never had the opportunities for education and better employment. They never had access to higher income in more professional jobs, and if they did, they would have certainly invested in their rural homesteads. It is not the Xhosa way to ignore these obligations, they emphasize.

 

Considering the above information, I decided to engage some of the elderly people in the village who have children working in town. Some of them believe that Black Tax is a sign of gratitude. Some parents shared with me that they decided to have multiple children to ensure that at least one of them would financially support them. This issue arose in a workshop we hosted in Gwaba where one woman expressed feeling abused because her children, whom she raised, were not supporting her financially. At that moment, I wondered if she had ever asked her children why they were not sending her money. I realized that this situation had been ongoing for years, prompting me to reflect on my own family's experience with Black Tax.

 

Reflecting on my own family, our firstborn at home struggled with Black Tax. Although she never used this term, she would always share that her focus when she got paid was to send money home, leaving her with nothing afterward. This situation hurt her deeply, but there seemed to be no way out. All six of us at home were sent to school by her. Witnessing the parents in Gwaba village proudly stating that their daughters were responsible for sending money home every month made me curious to hear from the daughters in this situation.

 

After speaking to some young professionals dealing with Black Tax, I found that it was the demand and expectation of the money that hurt and depressed them. They acknowledged the sacrifices of their parents and expressed eternal gratitude. However, the pressure and expectation had turned this process into something resembling taxation. Many young professionals had taken out loans that they struggled to repay, loans that were used to build their homes in the Eastern Cape.

 

This raises the question of whether Black Tax is a curse or Ubuntu. While it may have originated from Ubuntu, it has now escalated and feels like a curse for many young professionals who are in debt and feel pressured to build their homes as soon as they start working. Black Tax has persisted through many generations without being questioned. With the current poor state of the economy, rising inflation, and the lack of jobs in South Africa, the Black Tax is becoming increasing contested across the links between town and country.

 





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