SOME of our best reporters volunteered to scour the streets of Joburg, in icy-cold weather, for some bit of good old gold for those who live on the fringes of society.
It was to turn out to be a fascinating, though transient, enquiry into how Joburg treats its beggars.
We see them every day on our way to and from work or school. Some look dangerous, others as if they need a hospital bed – or just a shower. Some sleep under bridges, for long periods without food, defeated by poverty.
Others “rent” children or the blind in order to pull at the heart strings. Innovation, it is said, is often the offshoot of hard times. And it is, as our special report yesterday showed, hard on the streets of Jozi. As you’d imagine it to be, I suppose, in Lusaka, Harare, Cairo, Mumbai, Beijing or New York.
Some descend on Jozi from many corners of the globe, but mostly from north of the Limpopo, in search of greener pastures. Others have fled dehumanising poverty in their villages and townships across the vast expanse of our beautiful land.
They hope that in this place of gold, where many dreams found true expression, where others found fame and fortune, they too, surely, will find work or a means of survival. Reality often hits them not long after arrival. And the battle for turf on our busy intersections soon unfolds. Paradoxically, they may not have homes or control of their places of abode, but they do enforce some form of control on who populates their street corners, and threaten violence if they sense belligerence.
Those who find themselves on the streets endure cynical jokes, mirthless smiles, alienation and cruelty from those whose help they seek. And, as colleague Shain Germaner correctly observes, being out in the cold or the sun and coming back with a handful of coins forces you to ask yourself many questions, least of which about who you are, what you are about and what your worth on this earth is – as if, philosophically, we are capable of knowing who we are.
Our graphic artist, Faheem Khota, hoping for a few rand from a man driving a R1 million BMW, discovered, to his horror, that this man could give only 30 cents (I echo Faheem’s “shame on you, man!”). Indeed, to those to whom much is given, much is expected. Perhaps in an ideal world – in Plato’s Republic. But Faheem struggled a bit to reconcile this man’s abundant wealth, displayed through his expensive car, and his decision to give him only 30c.
As someone said on my Facebook page, some people have grown selfish, are given to conspicuous consumption and are blasé about the suffering they see around them. Is it possible the BMW driver thought himself useful to Faheem, or was he being intentionally vain? In aid of what? And what about the other people who simply looked the other way? Who couldn’t be bothered.
Still, what of those who not only provided little or had the decency to look away when they could not help, but chose to laugh at our reporter Kutlwano Olifant? Perhaps we should, as Plato did in Meno, ask if virtue is teachable.
Omphitlhetse Mooki, our high court reporter, found that Mthembeni Mchunu “sells” HomelessTalk – even though nobody takes a copy – but makes about R300 from “loyal mlungus”. His unique selling point (USP) is that he “sells” something rather than just begging.
Societal irritation about those who expect something owing to the poverty of their lives is palpable. The loyal mlungus gave Mchunu money ostensibly because he was trying to do something for himself, even though the thing he sells is not of value to the “buyers”.
When contrasted with Theresa Taylor’s experience, it is easy to see how she managed to raise R182 when Mooki, despite her best efforts over two days at various intersections, could manage less than R50. Taylor, whose brief was not to do a pedestrian sob story, found that many opened their hearts to her idea of raising bail money for her bridesmaid.
But it is worrying that some of the motorists who looked at youthful Olifant just thought of sex instead of helping. Olifant received more offers for sex (21) than rand (13). Shameful. It says that some among us look at women in distress and instinctively think: why do you not use the stuff between your legs to help yourself? How raw!
Yet, when they are sitting with their respectable partners at dinner tables in bespoke business wear, they are the first to empathise with the women’s struggle for full emancipation. Either that, or they start moralising about prostitution and sit in judgment on women who, in desperation, do unfortunately use their bodies to stave off hunger pangs.
It is tempting to generalise and think Joburg men are just a horny bunch looking for sexual favours from beggars. The truth is, however, that the long hours our reporters spent in the streets pale into insignificance given the months, years even, beggars spend waiting for someone to give them a little more than 30c. Damn Faheem’s BMW guy!
For many of us, the beggars have become the invisible men and women of our intersections. They are unseen and unheard. We refuse to help them because we fear they will find the exercise profitable. And they will call their cousins to populate our streets. We would rather they surrendered to poverty away from our eyes.
It was Aime Cesaire who, in Discourse on Colonialism, observed: “A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.” Cesaire wrote that a Hitler slumbers within “the very distinguished, very humanistic and very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century”.
In our case, this is not a Hitler who kills by employing violence, the metaphor of human progress according to Mahmood Mamdani. But a Hitler who seeks to destroy a girl by demanding undue sexual favours because she is floored by poverty. A Hitler who encourages kids to laugh at beggars instead of helping. A Hitler who closes its eyes to the many people who, on our pages yesterday, were well represented by Faheem, Kutlwano, Omphitlhetse, Theresa and Shain.
The more we fail to see those on the fringes of society on our intersections as we entrench the each-one-for-themselves way of life, the more Steve Biko’s dream, our dream, of gifting the world “a more humane face” is cut into smithereens. How tragic.