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House negroes

This small anecdote flashed and re-flashed in my mind in the past week as I reviewed Finance minister Mthuli Ncube’s 2024 national budget statement.

THERE was once a fire at the slave master mansion and the house negro was heard wailing: “Our house is on fire!” much to the astonishment of the field negroes.

This small anecdote flashed and re-flashed in my mind in the past week as I reviewed Finance minister Mthuli Ncube’s 2024 national budget statement.

There was much outcry on social media about one new tax — 1% property tax on houses valued at US$100 000 and above.

The tax has since been reviewed in the budget that was passed in record time without much debate after opposition Citizens Coalition for Change shortchanged the nation by disorderly conduct and were kicked out of the National Assembly chambers.

The value of property to be taxed was reviewed upwards to US$250 000 and applicable to a second house or other houses besides the primary residence.

Pensioners, too, were saved from the tax and local authorities were made tax agents on behalf of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra).

It is important to relook at the social media debates over the property tax. Probably, I should start by explaining what house and field negroes were.

During the slave trade era, a dark period for Africans who were traded as pieces of merchandise by capitalists generally known as the slave trade, Africans were abducted and became property of their abductors, who would sell them to sugar cane farmers in the United States of America.

At the farms, the slave owners would choose a few to be house helpers. The house helpers were called house negroes for they worked and stayed in the house, while their unfortunate compatriots would be in the fields cutting cane for hours on end, getting little food to keep sustenance.

It goes without saying that the field negroes resented the house negroes. It also remains a fact that the house negroes thought of themselves better than field negroes and in some circumstances, thought of themselves as part of the slave owners’ families.

This is whence the cry — our house is on fire — comes from. They saw the house as theirs too.

Field negroes laughed because they knew the house negroes were delusionary; there was never a chance in hell that they could be seen as equals by the slave owners.

Back to the property tax, some on social media tried hard to equate the new tax to the colonial hut tax, without applying their minds.

A few influencers who lack ideological clarity were at the forefront and the echo chambers sprang into action. It was sad.

Just looking at the profiles of the social media users, 80% of them had no property to their name and in the next decade will not have property valued at US$100 000. So, who were they fighting for? Are they not like house negroes who cried “our house is on fire”?

As a leftist, for once, I agreed with Ncube that the rich should carry a fair share of the tax burden. The country cannot rely on value-added tax and pay as you earn, which in truth hits the poor and working class harder.

It brings us into an important discussion that Zimbabwe has avoided — class politics. The rich, the world over, try to evade paying tax. That is why they bank their wealth in tax havens.

They just enjoy sweating workers and flaunting their wealth with no sense of community or society.

It is shameful that the poor took it upon themselves to fight on behalf of the rich. Not a moment did they pause to say how can the government fund infrastructural development, social housing, public education and public health or even public transport.

It is important, and agreed in many countries, that wealth should be redistributed. Some people have wealth they cannot spend even if they get 10 lifetimes. The State has a duty to take care of the poor and working class.

Even at the heart of the capitalist world — the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany — they have many social safety nets from subsidised public transport, social housing, public education to public health.

The urgent thing now is how local authorities, Zimra agents, can update their valuation rolls. In many local authorities, the rolls are in shambles.

This must be done now. The country cannot afford any more revenue leakages because it cannot collect it.

Many other players should be involved like insurance players and professional property evaluators.

It is not a secret that many properties will be undervalued to avoid paying the tax. Experience has shown that values of many properties are undervalued in wills as people try to evade paying tax on inheritance.

It should be noted that property was one of the sectors the rich were putting their money into to hedge against inflation.

A cursory look at property prices in Zimbabwe and South Africa shows how insanely local prices are inflated.

How can one property in Borrowdale be valued at US$1 million, approximately R20 million? This figure can buy one, four or five beach properties in Cape Town or Durban. The chickens are coming home to roost in the property market.

Ncube’s tax proposals have given us an opportunity to have ideological debates on the economy and development.

While it is not beyond question that the current regime is neoliberal — pro-privatisation, pro-capital, and open borders to capital — it is important that those of other persuasions should make capitalism have a human face.

Zimbabwe cannot be a country of the few haves and many havenots. It is important that we should look at other ways of raising revenue, including that the rich and large mining corporations are carrying a fair share of the tax burden.

It is important too that the poor and working class should not support certain positions in trying hard to be seen as woke. House negroes need to give us a break.

  • Paidamoyo Muzulu is a journalist based in Harare. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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