Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Prince John

One of the other Canadian interns has fallen out of love with Joburg.

It’s understandable: he was mugged twice in three days.  The first time occurred on a Friday night while he was driving through the inner city.  He had his smartphone on the dashboard to use its GPS and the windows were down.  A man approached their vehicle while it was stopped at an intersection, told him he had a gun and that he wanted the phone. 

The second time was at the Afcon game on Sunday night.  My friend was pickpocketed during the celebrations after Nigeria won.  Luckily, though, he realized it right away and he ran after the guy who stole his phone (with me and the interns in pursuit) and we got it back.

I’ve talked to a bunch of people who went to the Afcon game and each one had a white male in their group whose phone was pickpocketed.  The Canadian intern, however, was the only one who got his back.

I tried to cheer him up with that fact when he confessed that now he’s afraid to drive around Joburg alone, but it didn’t help.

“Try not to worry too much,” I consoled.  “I drive around this city all the time at night.  I drive through some of the worst areas during the day and nothing has ever happened.  Yes, I’ve been lucky.  But you can’t let a couple bad experiences ruin the whole city for you.”

“I’m not letting my muggings ruin the whole city,” the intern said.  “Just the CBD.  I’m not going downtown anymore!”

Which is too bad on a variety of different levels.  My number one issue is that I’m tired of partying in yuppie Greenside and want to head downtown this Friday, but the other interns aren’t interested whatsoever.

Ok, maybe that’s not my biggest concern.  My bigger issue is allowing one (or two) negative incidents to completely overshadow all the good and neutral happenings.

Because his phone was stolen, the intern is nervous now.  He doesn’t like it when people get too close to the car.  When we drove to the train station to take the free train to the Afcon game (before his second mugging), he got freaked out by the parking attendants trying to wave him over to their designated spots.

That parking attendants here are very aggressive because they’re all competing with each other, but that’s part of the charm of the inner city.  And, to be honest, I’d seen much more overwhelming driving situations that what we experienced on our way to the Afcon game.

“Why are do they want our attention so much?” one of the other interns asked.  “I can’t trust them when they’re competing like this.”

She then told us that her Afrikaner lover told her that most of the parking attendants are crooks: they wait until you’ve left your car then call their friends to break into it.

“I don’t believe that’s true,” I argued.  “I’ve only had really good experiences with the parking attendants while I’ve been here.  They’ve all been super helpful.  I mean, I’m sure that some of them are crooks, but probably only a small percentage.  The majority are just trying to earn a living.”

Why is it so easy to vilify the poor?  Especially when they’re a different race?

I think upper- and middle-class people project their own fears onto impoverished populations.  We want to believe that somehow they deserve to be poor because they’re lazy or stupid or morally corrupt or even because they’re black (at least in this country).

The problem is that “poor” doesn’t simply mean lack of money.  Instead, there are all sorts of connotations associated with poverty that simply aren’t true.

As Hanlon, Barrientos, and Hulme argue in their book Just Give Money to the Poor: The development revolution from the global south (2010):

The biggest problem for those below the poverty line is a basic lack of cash. Many people have so little money that they cannot afford small expenditures on better food, sending children to school, or searching for work. It is not a lack of motivation; people with little money spend their days actively trying to find a way out of poverty. It is not a lack of knowledge; they know what they need and manage their money extremely well.

I’m trying to figure out how to tell my Canadian intern friend not to worry about groups of poor black people without implicating that he’s either a racist or a classist.  I also don’t want to seem insensitive to the trauma he experienced.  Moreover, if I start on this topic I can easily find myself in the middle of my usual socialist rant:

These people are just trying to earn a decent living!  Why would you be afraid of a man that wants to park your car for R20?  He’s aggressive because he needs that money.  Yes, maybe it’s for drugs.  Or to upgrade his phone.  But are you seriously going to judge him on that?  What do you spend your money on?  A big portion of my paycheck goes to “entertainment” which is actually a euphemism for alcohol.  So who cares if he spends half of your R20 to buy himself a joint?  If I had to sprint around the city to find parking for white people to earn some money, I’d probably drink myself into oblivion as well.

But, in reality, you have no idea what he’s going to spend that money on.  Maybe his child?  Maybe a loaf of bread?  Would it make a difference to you if he chose to spend it on something you’ve determined is ‘worthwhile’?

Lastly, are you really going to complain about corruption within the parking attendants?  If anything, crime by the poor is more like Robin Hood trying to balance out the status quo than malicious villains.  We just don’t like it because we’re the rich people who have too much.”

The sad truth is that, no matter how you look at it, we’re the rich.

But we’re not the super-rich.  Want to complain about some real crimes and criminals? 

How about bankers? 

Or military activists? 

Or all those people willing to degrade the environment for personal profit? 

Or even the majority of Canadians don’t think we seriously need to re-examine the state’s relationship with First Nations?

I think these are way bigger issues than whether or not an inner city entrepreneur is going to charge me R5 (<$1) too much for a parking spot.  Or if he’s going to run too fast to lead me to it.

Hmmm.  Yep.  Looks like I’m going to look insensitive if I try to bring this topic up with my friend.  Ok.  That’s fine.  Now I just need to print off the articles linked above so I can whip them out at crucial points in the discussion.

Prince John


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