Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Uncomfortable

In Johannesburg, there are street beggars and vendors at almost every major intersection.

Some of them are dressed in rags and hold a single cup while they mime hunger and “please” through car windows.

Others hold signs that vary from heartbreaking (“Starving, need job”) to hilarious (“Cat stole neighbour’s milk.  Need money for bail.”)

Then there are those who offer services.  Often they carry plastic bags for garbage, but there are also squeegee kids and car cleaners.

The vendors’ goods include everything from beaded necklaces, rubric’s cubes, headphones, and food.  I’ve pulled over more than once to ask, “How much for a bag of avos?”

Most people I know complain about the beggars.  When I first moved here, people told me not to give them any money because that would encourage them to continue begging.  Instead, they should get jobs.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could have a job?  Unfortunately, however, many people in this country can’t.  Consequently, they do whatever they can to survive.  Intersection begging looks like terrible working conditions to me: standing all day, dodging cars, most people refusing to acknowledge you.  I’d rather do almost anything else.

I’ve heard other tidbits of information like that the women rent babies from strangers for R10/day so that they make more while begging.  Or that the majority of them are drug addicts and it’s their own fault for messing up their lives.

But I lived near the Downtown Eastside in Van and I know what a drug addict looks like.  The majority of the street beggars look hungry, not like they’re longing for their next fix.

It’s amazing the stories we make up to convince ourselves why the poor deserve to be poor.

I think the real reason that people are so hostile towards beggars is that they are a constant reminder that our affluent lifestyles come at the exploitation of others.  We can’t all be middle-class by today’s high standards.

One of my friends recently complained to me about going to Randlords, an expensive bar at the top of a high rise in Jozi’s CBD.  She said that she couldn’t enjoy herself drinking expensive cocktails when she had passed prostitutes on her way inside.

“I just don’t want to see them.  How can there be beggars right outside one of the city’s most expensive bars?  I’d rather go somewhere without the prostitutes.  It makes me sad to see them and it ruined my evening.”

“So you’d rather pretend that poverty doesn’t exist?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered, not hearing the sarcasm in my voice.

I have another friend who keeps packages of crackers and juice boxes in his car to pass out to the intersection beggars.

“I don’t support their presence and I don’t want them to buy drugs, but most of those people are starving,” he told me.  “I think it’s important for us to try to connect with them at some level to bridge the racism gap.  These ‘okes make way more off black people driving by than white people.  They have tons of people drive by every day with lifestyles they could never dream to achieve – and we don’t even see them.”

I admire his sentiment, but at the same time I find it patronizing to buy someone’s food for them.  Poor people have just as much right as the rest of us to choose how to spend their money.  If, at the end of a long day, they spend R10 on a joint or a beer – who am I to judge?  I’d probably do the same thing if I lived in a country with no socioeconomic ladder for me to climb.

So what do I do?  Do I give them money?

No.  I don’t.  And there’s no excuse for it.  Sometimes I think about going to the bank and getting a few rolls of R5 coins to hand out, but I haven’t done it.  Why?  I could say because I don’t believe that giving R5 at every intersection is the most effective way to drop R100/day to reduce poverty.  That instead I’m looking into organizations and charities that I believe will be lasting difference.

Or I could be honest.

Because I’m lazy.  Because there are so many of them.  Because I’m not willing to part with my money.

I do acknowledge them, however.  At every intersection I make eye contact, shake my head, and mouth “Sorry” because that’s how I would want to be treated.  Most beggars seem to appreciate it.  Some days I try to ignore them, but then they stand right at my window and mime eating until I drive away.  With my usual method, however, they tend to nod – sometimes even smile – and go to another car.

Giving the tiniest bit of respect and recognition is nothing to brag about, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Now I have to figure out my next move.

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