In the summer of 1999 my mother shipped us off to Durban, us being my two brothers and myself. Even on her meagre teacher’s salary, she had big dreams for us. “I want you to have a better education than I did. It will give you a fighting chance in life.” So further into the trenches of debt she sank in attempts to give us a bright future.
While she continued working as a primary school teacher back in our village, my brothers and I had to raise ourselves. Even so, most of the burden fell squarely on my oldest brother’s shoulders. He had to see to it that our scanty groceries lasted us the whole month, but even with him rationing the food to one meal a day, we still ran out of food two weeks into the month. Mom had no idea. We hid it from her. Even if we did tell her, she wouldn’t have been able to help, so there was no point. Besides she already had too much to contend with, including an abusive and philandering husband. Which I believe was one of the reasons she dumped us in Durban in the first place.
Most days we relied on the mercy of our neighbours; they would give us whatever was left from their dinner tables, and boy were we grateful. Even at that tender age, Mom always preached to us that if we didn’t stay in school, we would struggle for the rest of our lives. I listened passively. I wasn’t inspired. I mean, she stayed in school and got her teachers degree, but here we were living like paupers.
However, my mindset changed during our second year in Durban. We had just moved house for the fourth time in six months. Our new home was a room in a dilapidated flat we shared with pimps, drug addicts and prostitutes. As terrible as our new abode was, it still had some pretty strict rules, like there were only three people allowed in the room. This meant that when Mom came she had to find a place elsewhere to sleep. I was busy unpacking my clothes and getting ready for school when I looked out the window. There she was, my dearest mother, leaning against a pole, starring into space, all hope lost. It broke me to see her in that state. That day I made a vow to stay in school and make something of myself, so I can take care of my mom or at least help her get out of debt.
I’m not telling this story to glorify the hardship of my childhood. In fact, this story is the reality of most black people who grew up in dire poverty. The commonness of this story is what has given birth to terms such as “black tax”. Those of us who were lucky enough to get some type of degree and a job, have the unenviable task of “ukwakha ikhaya kuqala – to build our homes first,” before we can take care of ourselves. This can take forever. Even though I have a job, I’m still not in a position to help my mother the way I want to. My older brother does help out in every way he possibly can, despite my mother’s protests of “I didn’t send you to take care of me! I want you to go out in the world and live your life.” My brother’s response to this was a heart wrenching: “How can I enjoy my money when you are still struggling?” His black tax hasn’t just stopped with mom, it extended to me, our younger brother and sometimes our father.
Don’t get me wrong, it is an honour to help out at home, especially those that gave up everything for us to be where we are today. However, when it starts affecting our well-being then it becomes a problem. I was chatting to a friend not long ago. She told me that her younger sister fell into a state of depression because she found herself having to pay all their bills. She was the only one employed at that time, and on her ten-grand salary she had to make sure the household of seven people ran like a well-oiled machine.
My brother wanted to get married at 27. Today he is 31, still not married and with no hope that he will get married anytime soon. Him getting married means he will no longer be able to support Mom the way he wants to. He simply cannot bring himself to leave her in the situation she is in right now.
When I eventually find a good job that will enable me to help my family, I would like for my brother to marry the love of his life, to travel, to do all the things he couldn’t do since he started working 12 years ago.
It is not a secret that many of the problems we face today as young black South Africans are the remnants of the monster we called apartheid. While we reserve every right to be angry and lament about how disenfranchised we are, I hope we don’t wallow in our misery long enough that our off-spring suffers for it. That they spend the rest of their adulthood trying to recover from nightmarish childhoods. That their dreams revolve around: building a house for mom. Buying a car for dad. Helping my sister get her degree. I hope our generation is the last one to bear the burden of black tax. I hope we channel our anger and hurt to do good things instead, and that one day soon this black tax is no longer needed…
Tell Us: Do you think we owe our parents for raising us?