He was running next to our car as if his life depended on it – and maybe it did! I felt a whirlpool of emotions, ranging from sadness and pity to fear and anger: fearful that he would be hurt or run over by our car, or another; angry that my husband didn’t just stop (he couldn’t - we were crossing a busy city intersection!); sad that his situation (and that of many in this country) could be so desperate that he would do this just to sell one magazine!
It was Saturday, and we were on our way to a movie. We had stopped at a traffic light, and started to call over one of the ‘Big Issue’ magazine vendors that are always there, when the lights changed, and we had to move on. The man eagerly ran over to catch us before we passed, but just then I realised we only had a R50 – the magazine costs R18 (of which half goes to the vendor) and we often just give a R20 as there is very little time to scramble for change…but R50?
While I continued to scrounge through the wallet for something else, he kept saying eagerly, “take it, take it, R10” – but I didn’t have that either. And I didn’t have a chance to explain this to him, or my husband, when suddenly we were crossing the intersection, with the man running alongside my open window, the magazine being offered partly through the window between us, and my head and heart in absolute turmoil.
The ‘Big Issue’ makes a point of asking people not to give the magazine vendors extra money, as this is meant to be a legitimate transaction, not ‘begging’ – which is so demeaning, destroys a person’s self-image and does nothing to encourage a strong work ethic. They are doing amazing work with homeless and unemployed people, from providing them with a legitimate way to earn a bit of money, to long-term skills training, help with drug addictions and counselling. I didn’t want to invalidate the whole process by just handing him the R50.
What seems like a generous act on the surface can also often be just the quick and easy way to assuage one’s feelings of guilt and helplessness in the face of such seemingly unsolvable problems as mass poverty. Such acts of ‘charity’ usually feel immensely patronising to me, placing an instant barrier between me and the other person. These unequal power relations are not only disempowering to the recipient in the long-term, but prevent real interactions between people from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds, and thus perpetuate the ‘status quo’ and the ‘us and them’ mentality which keeps us distanced from each other's lives and problems.
But my heart was not happy with this ‘justification’ for not giving. I don’t see giving R50 away as such a hugely generous act anyway – I mean what is R50 to us really – less than the cost of a movie ticket nowadays, or a bit more than two coffees. To this man it could mean not going to sleep hungry, and not having to face another day at the traffic lights tomorrow on an empty stomach.
All of these conflicting thoughts raging inside me, and the sound and blur of traffic just outside my window had an immobilising effect on me. I froze, wallet in hands – unable to stop the man running next to us, unable to buy the magazine, and expecting some tragic accident any second.
A moment later, my husband had stepped on the accelerator to clear the intersection, and the man dropped back, unable to keep up. Inside the car for the next few minutes, we argued over the safety of various stopping places - in the middle of the intersection had of course been out of the question, but what about there (crossing various lanes of traffic to make a sudden stop in the far left, still a traffic lane)?…or there (just before a traffic circle)?… but there was nowhere, and we were soon too far along anyway. But we were both so upset by this time that we had to turn back – it wasn’t even a decision really - we could not enjoy our evening until we had given that story a different ending.
So we eventually found a place to turn, and headed back through the traffic circle and intersection, then turned around again so that we would be on the same side of the road – all quite frantic in the Saturday traffic…all the while scanning the many people hanging about at the intersections selling one thing or another, to find the man again. And then there he was - we waved and called, and suddenly he was next to our window again, breathless and smiling widely. He had a really strikingly handsome face, and his smile lit up his whole being, so that he practically shone as he stood there, thanking us profusely, and explaining his joy that his 13 day old baby would have milk tonight!
I couldn’t even answer him with more than a smile – I was speechless: uncomfortable at being cast yet again into the inflated role of some sort of ‘saviour’; overwhelmed with relief that we had turned back; and yet immeasurably sad that so many people are struggling to meet such basic needs, right here on our doorsteps. Meanwhile our cupboards and fridges overflow, and a ‘lean’ month for us would mean not going out to expensive dinners, or not buying another pair of jeans. But what do we do about it?
I tried to process the mixture of emotions I was still experiencing - the whole encounter had rattled me. Especially since we were on our way to watch a movie at the Waterfront - a shiny, sprawling monument to hyper-consumerism and tourism – boutique shops selling overseas ‘must haves’, or equally overpriced African crafts and curios (to the mostly German tourists who flock to Africa each year, only to surround themselves with everything luxurious and European?). The many pricey haute cuisine Restaurants are safely ensconced in an ‘urban regeneration’ area of sterile security apartment blocks and of course, the picturesque harbour and iconic
. Table Mountain
It’s a world away from the grimy sleepiness of the city centre, or the crowded desperation and squalor of the townships the majority of Capetonians live in…the significant, but powerless majority, who are all but forgotten when your actual social space is still so privileged, sheltered and mostly white - even 17 years after ‘full democracy’ arrived in this country.
So as ordinary as this encounter may seem to most South Africans, this man running beside our car, and his beaming face when we came back, his eyes that were just overflowing with joy and relief…caused my heart to burst wide open.
I am still now trying to have a good look inside to see what I can draw out, while it is still wide open like this. After all, this has happened before, in other ways, for other reasons, but all too soon our hearts tend to close up again, if only to enable us to live our daily lives without a constantly bleeding heart, which can be completely debilitating. We can’t stay in this place of intense feeling for too long – not only because most of us are so horribly uncomfortable there, but also because solving the world’s (or our own) problems requires doing something about it, not just sitting in a heap feeling sad about it. But no doubt if our actions were birthed from a place of deep feeling, earnest contemplation and soul searching beforehand, they would be more helpful. So I feel that spending a bit of time in this place is a worthwhile exercise.
Of course it wasn’t the first time I had an encounter that made me think about all of this – I have had many, and after living overseas for over ten years, returning to this country has been fraught with a confusing mix of emotions. Sadness, compassion and ‘charity’ are sometimes displaced by irritation or anger when you get so tired of being harassed by the hordes selling crap at every traffic light, and simply walking down the street with a white face makes you the target of every high-as-a-kite beggar (they never ask any black people for money - I haven’t had a stable job or money most of the time since moving here two years ago - ask some of those guyz in their BBBBBBBEE suits and Mercedes, man…).
But I have always been a far too sensitive soul – since childhood I have questioned the way things are in this country - I remember at about age 6 being told “that’s just way the world is”, and saying to myself “well when I am big I will change the world!!” Of course I also had no understanding of the depth and complexity of the issues, or the amount of money, effort and co-operation needed to resolve them entirely. In my naivety, I also dreamed of one day having a house big enough for all the unwanted children and elderly in the world…on a farm that could accommodate all the unwanted animals in the world! As my father pointed out, that would be some house/ farm – and where will you get all this money and space, and who will look after them all? And so I grew up, realised there were ‘practicalities’ and it wouldn’t be that easy…
Still, I chose to study politics and peace studies with the express purpose of ‘changing the world’ – I must have believed this was possible at the time. Now, when I feel challenged, almost daily, to respond meaningfully to a broken and bleeding world, even one person at a time… I often feel quite inadequate, and helpless to do so. I am not talking about just giving away a few unwanted clothes or blankets, either – I mean contributing to real and lasting change in a person’s life – or even a whole community, the whole nation. How to do this is always where I fall down…and often stay there, feeling miserable and completely useless.
I think many people feel this way when confronted by the scale of the issues we face nationally (poverty, homelessness, HIV, lack of good healthcare or education) and globally (wars, human trafficking, climate change). Where do we begin? What do we do? How do we do it, and with whom? Of course the issues are complex, but what holds me back from doing more is usually the complexity of racial relations in this country – for example, I feel that a ‘whitey’ going into the townships and trying to tell people what to do is immensely patronising or arrogant, and that what they really need is their own role models, rising up from within their own communities, who have had similar experiences, who can speak their language and encourage them.
But these are the questions I suddenly found myself faced with:
Would returning to Australia (because I miss my friends and the wonderful life I had there, miss my funky little bubble called ‘Bondi beach’, with all its amazing Restaurants and great coffee, miss the particular culture and sense of humour, and the many great local musicians that inspired me….) mean turning my back on people like this, turning my back on the chance to really contribute to this country, and to ‘changing the world’?
But where, when and how can I help or contribute - how can I make a real and lasting difference? I have been here almost two years now, and aside from some short-term research work, there have not been many opportunities to become involved. I have not been able to see a clear path to follow to becoming a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. It has been immensely disappointing to witness the modus operandi of consultants, who I now see as ‘tender vultures’ - feeding off the carcass of a decaying (corrupt and incompetent) system and profiting massively - joining the government in squandering our tax money, which could have been better allocated to improving the lives of those in need.
If only I could figure all of this out, figure out what core issues need to be addressed, and how, to turn all of this around! If only I could contribute towards systemic and cultural change - rather than ‘band aid’ solutions which are not lasting or sustainable, relieving the symptoms without addressing the root causes. If only there was a group of people I could join in eradicating poverty – by ensuring it is no longer the logical product of our structurally unjust systems and culture… then I feel my time here would really be worth it – even worth ‘sacrificing’ friends, my preferred ‘lifestyle’, and the place I considered to be ‘home’…
The above thoughts have often been a part of my musings on life, meaning, personal contribution and social change…but then, like a slap in the face, came the key question:
Do you think sacrificing your ‘life’ (friends, ‘home’, interests, desires and pursuits) is not worth doing for the impact you could have in the life of just one human being? i.e. would you only consider making this ‘sacrifice’ if you were guaranteed that your actions would have a huge and lasting impact - on many people? Is the possibility of turning around the life of even just one person not enough for you to try, to stick around? If not, then aren’t you really saying that your ‘life’ is worth more than theirs? Do you really think you are more important than another human being – that ‘sacrificing’ your own comfort is only worthwhile in exchange for, let’s say, a few thousand or even a few million people?
This was the question that brought so much new revelation to me…and if you ask yourself these same questions as you read this, you might be unpleasantly surprised at the answers you find lurking in your own heart. It really is scary to realise how inflated our sense of self-importance really is deep inside there, when we are being totally honest with ourselves…
Of course there is nothing wrong with being an idealist – and wanting to see all of Cape Town (and South Africa, Africa, the world…) fed, housed, healthy, educated, employed in fulfilling jobs, living in wonderful communities, and coming to know the love of God as I have. This is far from a selfish picture…but if everyone was waiting for the guarantee of effectiveness before putting their hand to the plough, nothing would get done, we would never get anywhere! And many, many people would continue to struggle without a helping hand…
This realisation I am grappling with is not even starfish theory (the story about saving one starfish at a time, even though the beach is so full of them you can’t get to them all before it’s too late) – it’s lamb theory. The humble, selfless ‘lamb’ who came to save all of humanity, and sacrificed himself completely and utterly – with no guarantees that anyone would take up the offer of grace… He would have done this just to save one person! Since he held nothing back, as a Christian following in His footsteps, neither can I. He loved and gave unconditionally, and so must I. He pursued people, not comfort, and this is the challenge ever before me.
This is where the ‘rubber hits the road’ – am I a Christian, or just another person pursuing my own dreams and desires for my life? Christians, in the decades and centuries that followed Christ’s crucifixion, have sacrificed their lives – many literally – to share unconditional love with people all over the world. They stood up for the oppressed, fed the starving, housed the homeless, campaigned to abolish slavery, assisted alcoholics, opened orphanages, and in many other ways softened the heartless edges of Industrial society. The early Moravian church even sold themselves into slavery in order to reach out to slaves, and share their struggles (literally) in love and compassion.
So I realised a long time ago that if I could be even a faceless, nameless one of these brave and compassionate people in my time on this planet, then my life will have been worthwhile – visit a prisoner, help a township child with their homework, baby-sit for a single mother, give a ‘domestic worker’ a lift to crèche to drop off her child, rescue a few stray animals, volunteer at an old age home….even adopt an unwanted child one day? The possibilities are endless…and exciting!
But as for that question – would I give up my own pursuits, my own comforts, my own sense of ‘place’ and belonging…to reach out to even just one other person, who hasn’t had a fraction of the blessings I take for granted, and probably has no feeling of ‘belonging’ either… hmm, I won’t pretend that I have fully answered that one yet. My heart and my faith are still works in progress…but for now I will stay - taking one step at a time, and looking expectantly upwards (to hear/ learn from God), outwards (to connect with others), and forwards (not backwards, to places and people I have left, for now), to see what unfolds…