Thursday, September 30, 2010

Small Change

This is going to sound all wrong, and some of you are going to get all, like, ANGRY AND TYPE ME MAD EMAILS IN ALL CAPS. I know it. ‘Cause it’s one of those topics ‘you’re not supposed to talk about’, you know. You’re not allowed to be annoyed by poor people, let alone admit to it on a public platform. For shame!

But seriously. I drive around far too much, and far too far, for this not to be an issue. There is some form of beggar at every corner, in every parking lot, everywhere. You get the guys who, for some wondrous reason, kneel at the intersections, no doubt to illustrate the seriousness of their plight. You get the basic hand-cupping guys in their dirty clothes. Sometimes with rubbish bags. “I’m providing a service to you by gathering your car garbage. Give me money.” And of course there are the car-guards. But that’s a whole different tirade, we’ll just generalise, yes?

Now admit it – every time you approach a red robot and there’s a guy standing there with a pitiable look on his face, you get riled up. Your blood pressure rises. Your teeth clench. You roll up your window if he’s not looking and if you can avoid being too obvious. The reason for this frustration isn’t such a grand mystery: white guilt; yuppie guilt; shit, just plain “I have a car and food on my table” guilt. But that doesn’t make you feel any better about ignoring them flat, does it? Or even driving off with a quick “sorry”. And lately they’ve taken to holding two or three five cent coins in their palms to illustrate just how little they’re willing to take. And to add to the sympathy, of course. Along with women who, much to our total horror (Shock! Gasp!), hire babies.

My issue is: do you have a right to be pissed off, and to drive away not feeling bad about it?

There are several ways of justifying it. You can go with the “charity starts at home” adage. But that’s just weak. True. But weak. Ya ya you work hard to earn your cash, and deserve to spend it where you choose. But you need more. You need to make the beggars’ actions wrong in order to feel completely absolved, right? And you can’t just go to the obvious raging idea that they should get jobs. It’s the right path, but you have to go deeper.

Yes, these people should absolutely be out there looking for jobs. But it’s not that easy, as you know. Our unemployment rate is ludicrous – people with University degrees can barely get a job. And because of the economy, big companies are even struggling to afford their unskilled labour. But the point is that these gents are no closer to finding work settled on the same corner every day. And dare I say it, chances are, they’re not interested in working either. It’s a lot easier to stand in the street and blame the hundreds of selfish motorists when you don’t have enough money at the end of the day. Painstakingly and tirelessly looking for a job that will undoubtedly pay you peanuts is not nearly as appealing as technically doing nothing and getting a good R2 from, let’s say, one in five cars that pass.

Think about it this way: there are millions of people in this country who struggle and suffer. We all know it, whether it’s general awareness or that we’ve gone out of our way to see it for ourselves. There are men and women who commute for four or five hours every day to get to and from work, to earn a pitiful salary that barely feeds their families and educates their children. But they wake up every day, and they do it. And it’s a fight. They’re trying. Some of them have two or even three jobs. Some of them live in entirely different provinces to the families they’re trying to provide for. Are these not perhaps the people that deserve that R2 every day? What’s with this sense of entitlement? This idea that somehow the world owes you your living? Not in the history of mankind has life ever worked that way, and nothing’s going to change. No matter your position in life, there’s always someone worse off than you, so what makes you any more or less in need than say, the people of Ethiopia? (Guess who ‘wins’ that one, by the way.)

I dunno. I became acutely aware of how much it annoyed me this week, and I know that after years of driving around and dealing with it, there must be a reason. It just doesn’t feel right giving these stationery people money. I’m not of the patronising school of “oh well they’re just going to buy booze and glue!” Nor the “little child being exploited by adults” route – even though this is fairly obvious some of the time. So it’s not as simple as my issue being with what they do with the money they gather. It’s why they’re (dangerously) occupying our intersections in the first place. And the fact that they’re evidently making money that way, which is why the problem persists. If your job as a beggar or glorified beggar (read: car guard) is paying out, you’re not exactly going to go do something that requires any effort, now are you?

My suggestion: if you are someone who gets uncontrollably annoyed and riled up at the sight of a beggar – don’t give them money. And don’t feel bad about it. I, personally, hate ignoring people, so I always tend to speak to the dude. I just say “sorry I’ve got nothing for you”, and if they persist I get a bit tougher. But that’s up to you. If you’re a sucker and always pay up – rather give your maid an extra two rand for every day of the month. Or your gardener. Or pick a charity of some sort. Someone or somewhere you know will use it well. Where you know where your money’s going, I mean. Fuck, give the guy a sandwich or an apple if that’ll help you sleep at night.

But that’s just lil’ ol’ me. Please enlighten me with your view on the issue.

(I don’t purport to be an expert on this issue – it’s just my experience and my attempt at justifying how much it bothers me. I can also, obviously, not pretend to have any idea of the desperate state so many South Africans live in. So don’t sharpen your pitchfork and light your torch. I don’t intend to run for parliament. Just another Joburger who gets pissy.)


  1. Kim, I totally relate to your distress. It is a morally draining issue as you feel bad, but you want to go home and avoid severe depression because of the sad world we live in. Read my blog post, you’ll see that you’re not alone -

  2. Haha, you still refer to yourself as a Joburger. :P

    I think volunteering at your chosen charity (if you have the time) or budgeting to support your chosen charity (if you have the money) is the way forward.

    It's a structured, focused route to better the world and will, like, inspire lots of peace and love, bru.

  3. Kim, I agree 100% with you. It is refreshing to hear someone's opinion which is the same as me. I had a job a couple of years back which required me to drive around most of the day. This obviously meant that I stopped at many traffic lights & intersections where these beggars stood. It was a painful experience having to look each one of them in the eye and say "Sorry I have nothing". But a few friends of mine have told me that they have actually asked the beggars if they want to earn R50 or so by mowing their lawn or washing their windows etc etc. The beggars said "No thanks, I will earn more by standing here today". So it just goes to show that they are lazy and would rather stand there all day making you feel sorry for them than going out and doing real, physical work. Whether they actually do get more than R50 a day is debatable, but at least we can't say we never tried. Just an interesting topic....

  4. Interesting post Miss Schulze & I tend to agree, I like many have a bad guilty conscious that eats away at me when I see these people at the street corners, but its facts that you speak. They find it easier to stand there than actually make an attempt to go out and make an effort in doing something else.

  5. Great post Kim, in fact great blog. Except offcourse for that annoying misconception about Ethiopia.It's simplistic and ignorant. Lvd you on Gareth this morning.