20 January 2012

Through the looking glass: A fairy-tale gone wrong

“We tend to put people in boxes. We see someone trying to make a few rands by, as you gave as example, helping people park their cars,,and we attach a single story to them - poor. No consideration for the person behind that poverty. That guy could be an artist, could be a really intelligent person who just got unlucky and didn't perhaps have the money to continue studying. Point being there's more to people than just what the eye sees. And I felt like a hypocrite, 'cause there are people i look at in 3D, like my cleaner mommies. I know they probably have families, children waiting to be fed, fees to be paid, etc. I sympathise with that. But i cast fleeting glances at others, like people who help park cars. I forget they too have lives other than that.” - Heather Moyo
Today I saw something that broke my heart. As I was sitting in a minibus on my way to Johannesburg CBD to meet a friend, we passed through the area that houses the world famous Witwatersrand University. Imagine the long stretches of fencing that demarcate the border between the hustle and bustle of Joburg’s street and the hallowed halls of higher learning. Car parks filled with BMW’s, Audi’s and all the contributions that Europe annually makes to the automobile industry are parked in the vast parking complexes. They await their owners who are inside the huge glass and concrete auditoriums and lecture rooms absorbing the knowledge that will lead them on to a brighter future (at least that’s what one hopes for when you are paying almost US$ 10 000 per year for your education).  The buildings slowly gave way to the University’s vast stretches of sporting green, where the future graduates practiced their sports of choice as they took a break from digesting their lectures. It was a typical scene, rugby in one field, hockey in another and a rather energetic game of soccer in the last pitch. Then we saw them.

They were standing on the pavement, near a corner where the protective mesh fencing gave way to concrete durawall, crammed in that little space that allowed them to glimpse beyond the university’s boundaries into the green turf inside. Literally everyone in the minibus craned their heads to take a better look; it was a strange sight; three boys, presumably homeless judging by the clothes they were wearing, standing at the boundary of the continents leading university to watch a game of soccer that was being played. The tattered clothes they wore contrasted with the lush, green grass and the new kits the soccer players were wearing, the frenetic activity on the outside seeming unable to penetrate the calm tranquillity on the inside; and standing on the border, seemingly in another universe, three little souls watching from what for all intents and purposes was another universe. According to Wikipedia, the annual median income for a black male is ZAR 12,073 (a little less than US$ 2000). As the minibus sped off, I asked myself, ‘what hope do they have of ever learning at Wits?’

And that is the reality of South Africa, the rainbow nation that Nelson Mandela calls his homeland. It is a land of plenty and also the land of absolute poverty. It is an ever-present contrast between those that have, and those who do not have. Driving around Johannesburg on an ordinary day can be an eye opening experience. Sky scrapers reach for the sky in a bold testament of the gold that this city is founded. If the streets are not made of gold, it is more than made up for by the fashionable jewellery you will glimpse as you walk across Sandton Square, or the Lamborghini’s and Porsches that drive across the perfectly paved roads, coming to rest at traffic intersections adorned with beautiful sculptures and perfectly manicured lawns. Restaurants like Mugg & Bean charge up to US$ 10 for a burger and the smiling waitress will bring it to your table with a deference that is not lost on me; the awe and shock that must accompany they who stand in the presence of the moneyed, the rich, the nobility. This upper class is mostly white and urban, a fact that many Africanists are quick to point out, but for the sake of this article I shall take as a coincidence. In fact the rising wealth of the so called “Black Diamonds” makes it difficult to draw the racial line parallel to the class boundaries.

I doubt the men who stand all day in car parks to collect a few rands for ‘directing’ drivers out of their parking bays consider colour. They are everywhere, men and women trying to squeeze a living out of a landscape that seems so decidedly skewed in the favour of the rich. They live in townships like Diepsloot where the government is taking its own sweet time to pave the roads let alone plant flowers in the same way they are planted in Sandton. Their schools are woefully short of material, teachers under qualified or not properly supervised. Or even worse they live in the inner cities; dirty, old, run down, stinking; a lost world redeemed and yet made worse by the fact that it is home to so many people. Places forgotten by time and yet a stone’s throw away from the gleaming headquarters of the continents four biggest banks. One can see men huddled together sniffing glue in an alleyway that looks as if it is the gate through which all demons bound for earth must pass. Broken windows catch what little sunlight they can as they testify that poverty is indeed the lord of this place.

But what, for me, more than anything is the real pain, is the way that this country seems to have accepted this state of affairs as normal. It takes forever to increase the number of teachers in government schools because of ‘costs’ yet the Centenary Celebrations of the ruling party draw a 100 million Rand budget. 200 000 people live in decrepit housing yet the Department (that is what South Africans call their Ministry’s) of Public Works is unable to account for 2.1 billion Rands of its budget. A land where the annual media for a black male is 59 297 Rands less than that of a white male of the same age. Where universities which are amongst the best in the world are out of the reach of the ordinary citizen, where three boys huddle at a gap in the wall to watch a game of soccer. The closest that they might ever be to tertiary education.

And the sad reality is that as a Zimbabwean, I fully realise that the disparities that exist here are replicated in all their gory detail in my homeland. Sandton becomes Borrowdale, Hillbrow becomes Mbare, Department becomes Ministry; zeros are tagged onto the statistics, painting a grim picture for the citizens of countries that boast unrivalled natural wealth. Perhaps the shock is greater because I lived in Algeria (read my blog post about it here), which is an amazing example of a government dedicated to providing to the least of its citizens, or reading about Germany where Angela Merkel still lives in her private apartment and earns less than a South African CEO, notwithstanding being the premier of the richest country in Europe. Or take Switzerland, on most indexes amongst the richest countries in the world, which does not afford the head of state an official residence at all. Whatever its cause, it is a shock and a sadness that I feel is fully justified and should never be allowed to be the norm or else those poor children will forever be on the outside looking in, like Alice caught on the wrong side of the looking glass, a fairy-tale with no hope of a happy ending.


  1. Sad truth my friend... And this is true for practically the whole of Black Africa.

    1. We have to change it n'est pas? Even the poorest citizen deserves the treatment the government affords the richest citizen.

  2. A good morning for a good debate! :-) As much as it is touching, I wonder what it is that we hope we can do for the guys who park cars, the 'poor street kids'? I applaud the guys who park cars because at least they are attempting to do work of some sort. The street kids? What can we do for them and what are they doing for themselves? Because I will tell you know, there are many organisations now, such as Little Safe Haven, many church programmes within the Joburg CBD, that attempt to cater for the street kids, give them some sort of help, and yet many of them will prefer to still stand on the street, begging. Perhaps it really is less of a matter of 'pity', just because they are bedraggled, and more a matter of, they may find it more lucrative to stand by a street corner begging, may actually get more income from it, more money from it, than any other option. What I would be more interested in would be, what has this beggar done to try and get off the streets? Has he tried places like Little Safe Haven, the benevolent churches? Has he tried to clean himself up and look at least presentable, and then gone in search of an odd job, gardening, perhaps? Being a security guard, perhaps? Working on the many construction sites here in SA, digging and hauling bricks? You do not need any qualifications for any of these things. Has he tried all of this and failed? Have you seen those gentlemen who stand on the road with the signs 'Unemployed: can do odd jobs, plumbing, welding,... call....'. They always look clean and presentable. Now I am always happy to see that, because it shows that the gentleman is actually trying to do something to get off the streets, is trying to get some form of work. Poverty is not an excuse for sloth. How, indeed, would you as a person on the street expect to be met half way in any endeavour other than begging, if you will look not just perpetually filthy, but perpetually high? There is a public bath area in the Joburg CBD. I shall say it again, poverty is not an excuse for sloth, for intoxication, for vulgarity.

    There used to be a beggar by corner Rivonia road and Sandton drive who used to contort himself into a disabled person. Come end of the day you would see him ambling across the road, walking straight, like a normal person. What does this mean?

    So, I think the matter of the beggar is more complicated than that. A victim mentality is debilitating, does nothing to help the 'victim'. The victim needs to meet the system halfway by desperately needing to elevate himself out of his situation, otherwise no amount of donations or benevolence can save him. So, if we really are interested in making a lasting difference, perhaps we need to first understand what is inside of him, what drives him, in order to know how me may help him. Throwing money at him may actually be the wrong form of help. Perhaps he needs therapy. Perhaps he needs help from glue addiction. And if he will not try to help himself in any way, then we ourselves cannot hope to help him. You cannot help somebody who does not want to be helped.

    South African university education is very accessible to the ordinary citizen.... as long as that citizen is South African. There are numerous bursary programmes, scholarship programmes, grants etc in this country which cater for the South African citizen. South African citizens are even offered flexible payment methods within the university system. It is difficult not to be in university if you really really want to be, as a South African, if you have worked hard on your matric and money is the only way standing between you and university. The bursaries, scholarships, grants etc, are so numerous in this country. SA university education then becomes inaccessible to the foreigner; that is very true. Payment methods are stringent, and there are very few, if at all any, bursaries offered by SA to the foreigner. That is true.

    1. I get what you are saying and I agree with most of it. What I am concerned about more than anything, more than the guy on the street, who as you rightly point out could work his way up, is the fundamentals. The provision of education, the provision of services, the provision of access to information by the government because lets face it, the way that the government/municipality provides services to people in Sandton and the way they provide services to people in Diepsloot is worlds apart. Just a few days ago I was watching SABC 1 News and we saw children who have to cross a flooded river to get to school in some rural South African town, it's taken the Department of Transport five years to even get to discussing building a bridge! Let's take bets how long it would take them to repair the fountains in Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton?

      University education might be accessible but to what level? Those bursaries demand good marks, those good marks demand good schools and where are those good schools? Not in Diepsloot or Hillbrow.

      Having said that your points are valid, people shouldn't just sit and expect manna to come from heaven. The guys sitting and smoking glue in that Hillbrow alleyway should not just be given government grants to blow on more glue. But those boys standing outside Wits have been failed by a system that treats them as second class citizens.