The dry summer sun beats down through my open window. I impatiently push my sunglasses up my sweaty nose, cursing my broken air-conditioning. I look at the clock for the hundredth time as the traffic crawls slowly in the peak time along William Nicol Drive, inching towards the highway off ramp. The informal trading platform alongside me is also at its peak. Offers for chilled cold drinks, cell phone chargers and key rings inundate me. One skinny beggar with a hat catches my eye. He wears a plaid jacket and coloured shirt with a bowler hat jauntily at an angle. His outfit would be bizarrely stylish on another stage. His eyes twinkle gently, and he looks at me and says “Please madam”. Apologetically, I tell him honestly that I don’t have any money on me. I am in a generous mood and I make eye contact. He looks at me again, pleadingly says “Even some brown cents”.
“Oh, they are all drug addicts”. My eyebrows raise, this is a new theory I haven’t heard. “Don’t give them money – they will use it for drugs”. So continues the typical regurgitated South African conversation one lazy summer afternoon; our stomachs stuffed with lemon and herb braaied chicken and chutney lamb chops; pap oozing with tomato gravy. The blue pool glimmers in front of us; the kids splash excitedly in the cool water. Everyone chimes in with their own anecdotes of beggars who throw away food; women who rent babies to evoke pity; or who fake disability to manipulate generosity. Judgementalism, unashamed assumptions and separatism pervade. It streams into heated debates about car guards, peddlers and hawkers. The responses vary dramatically depending on the diversity of the group.
The factual ones will quote the newspaper article exposing these people as a sham – who rent babies to elicit sympathy or who fake disability to evoke pity. The angry ones will demand they get a job, and refer to the neighbourhood beggar who was offered a packing job but turned it down for his current more lucrative begging station. The socially aware one will chastise the rest, telling how they carry bags of apples in the car for the occasion. The more socially active and conscious offer their practical solutions to answer this pressing need on every corner. The morally conscious member will tell how they give to car guards but not to beggars. Some ensure they always carry small change, or a bag of apples, or sandwiches. Yet I question whether any of these responses are the most authentic ones available. Even the most pragmatic of solutions does not answer the existential crisis we face daily.
What is actually being asked of us in a society where no day goes past without encountering tens of hungry beggars, barefoot children, peddlers and sales people? As you stop by the robot, you are surrounded by enticing offers. A blind beggar shakes his tin noisily by your window. A fruit peddlar parades his sun drenched mangoes by your window with tempting words. A homeless lady and her infant sit on the pavement with her tin, her sad eyes desperately hoping your will throw her a rand. Living in Johannesburg the variables differ slightly – sometimes it’s the car guard outside the deli shop, or a trolley assistant by the grocery store. But the request is the same. We are asked for something – charity, payment for watching our car or packing our groceries.
The responses to these demands are diverse. There are those of us who shut our windows and stare straight ahead; willing them into oblivion, waiting for the robot to turn green, freeing us from facing these greedy and obnoxious beggars. Some of us fumble for change, and if we find a spare coin, graciously give. Some smile apologetically. Perhaps we may angry; accusing these people of taking advantage of our pity, preying on the well-to-do middle class sympathies. Their insistence and persistence enrage us; evoking irritation and resentment.
But I do not believe that anger is what drives our feelings. I think it is shame. We are ashamed because of our privilege. We cannot explain why we were born privileged; or why we have access to private healthcare and schooling. We know that we have nothing but the grace of G-d to deserve the comfortable 21st century living we bask in. Living in South Africa, we each reap the benefits of apartheid. Even those of us born post-democracy are still floating on the magic carpet of privatised education and opportunity. These truths are uncomfortable, unanswerable and annoying. So we close our windows, close our eyes, look anywhere but into the eyes of the person asking something we cannot give. We play with the radio; read the newspaper headlines or check our cell phones. In the words of Pink Floyd, we choose to be “comfortably numb” over the alternative inner awkwardness.
We choose this numbness because we know we cannot offer a solution. We are vulnerable in our inability to help solve the pains of these people. Because even if we give every one we encounter a coin or an apple there are thousands of poor & hungry people in the next city, in the next road and in the next township. Every continent bears witness to the poverty which plagues the majority of mankind, the high mortality rate which is so easily avoidable, and the harsh living conditions where food is scarce and running water a luxury. And from our air-conditioned cars we realize that we are helpless. We realize that as much as we do, we will always live a good and protected life. There is no justification for this inequality. Perhaps we want to change things, but can’t and are therefore embarrassed by our helplessness. We do not want to watch, to acknowledge their hardships, and feel their pain.
Yet our society does not allow for us to ignore this reality. In a country with the highest wealth gap in the world; third world living and first world influenza are intertwined. Driving out of Sandton’s manicured estates, rag-dressed children begging stand at every intersection and shacks litter the horizon.
So I believe that while we are asked to open our hands repetitively; we are foremost being asked to open our hearts. It is painful and heart-breaking to acknowledge and feel empathy for the suffering of another human being; especially in the face of our luxury. It is easier to blame these people; to accuse them of being lazy and not taking available employment. It makes us feel better to point out the ones who are scamming us and conning us. But I think a society where begging is more fruitful than valid employment is a tragic one. I think the embarrassment and loss of potential actualized is a result of a broken world we live in. I think that each beggar, car guard and hawker offers us a chance to own an uncomfortable truth – that there exists so much pain and suffering in the world; and we cannot solve it all. It is hard even to acknowledge another person’s tragedy. We shy away from funerals, forcing ourselves to go. Visiting a terminally ill friend or relative is unbearable for most. It is horrible to acknowledge another’s humanity; their fragility and the fact that nothing is guaranteed. It takes vulnerability on both sides to look into someone’s eyes and say “I see you – your pain, your need and your suffering. I cannot offer you much, but I feel your hardships”.
Even though this vulnerability may terrify us, for me this is the most authentic response to the tragic reality. Each beggar reminds me of a world beyond the Glenhazel ghetto, beyond world class medical care and beyond privatized security. Each beggar offers the chance to open your hearts to those who have so much less. Each car guard offers the opportunity to imagine another’s life, their reality and show compassion on his/her humanity. Each fermented mango peddler asks, can you risk seeing me for who I am, for who I can be and for what I am going through. A chance to move past our arrogance, our fear, our bubble of opulence. Each encounter probes whether you will choose compassion or justice; will you let your heart be opened and be vulnerable to the struggles of the other?
And of this opening of a heart will come a new generation of South Africans. As a parent, I am now extremely conscious of the example I am setting for my daughter. Preaching and teaching kindness will not create a generation of givers and agents of change. Brene Brown, one of my favourite catalysts for authenticity says in ‘Daring Greatly’ “Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting. In terms of teaching our children to dare greatly in the “never enough” culture, the question isn’t so much “Are you parenting the right way?” as it is: “Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?”
So if we give the insignificant brown cents to the man at the intersection, then we are on the way to being the adult we want our children to be. By doing this we can show our children how to be open to the pain of others and not be afraid of feeling empathy. And then I am certain we will raise children are sensitive to the plight of those who have less, and grateful for all their own blessings. And there will be a generation of where this no “other” or “them”, but where each person is honoured for his humanity just the way he is.