I’ve just witnessed a very disturbing incident: while walking through Peppergrove Mall, I noticed a young man approach a woman driving a Mercedes Benz with his hands cupped as though he were asking for something. The woman was already in her car and she rolled down her window and shouted: “Listen here, go away, you’re not allowed to be here!” As you can guess the guy is a black and the woman is white. This is not a new scene in our daily lives, where black youngsters are out in the street begging from anybody who looks like they could have any extra cash to spare.
What was disturbing about this incident was what the woman said to the young man: you’re not allowed to be here! What does this mean? Clearly the presence of a beggar makes anyone conscious of their privilege and comfort, uncomfortable in a country like South Africa. Everyday we all encounter people who have to go to bins for any hope of something that even resembles food. What makes a difference is how we respond. Do we ignore someone asking for food or simply shrug and say I’m sorry, while driving away in a fancy car or on the way to Pick ‘n Pay to buy junk food because we have “the munchies”? How do we respond to the reality of poverty that accosts us every single day without fail? Do we become desensitized to it, or simply accept it as status quo?
I deliberately carry no money on me these days because I got tired of lying to someone asking for 50c while I have loose change in my purse. The danger of course is being on a moral high ground about how best to live everyday with people who simply, and often honestly, are asking for food. The obvious response: we don’t want to encourage laziness by simply giving something to someone who hasn’t worked for it. I’ve often convinced myself that food insecurity happens out there in Africa (like a typical South African who forgets that South Africa is part of this continent and refers to any place beyond Gauteng as “up North…Africa”) and not in the daily lives of many South Africans. But then every Tuesday, as I’m walking to campus I am bound to see women and children rummaging through rubbish bags ready to be picked up by the Municipality, and I realise that poverty and hunger are right on my doorstep and it is dehumanising.
Back to the incident that disturbed me: it doesn’t shock me that yet another black person is begging from another white person. What disturbs me is the response: you are not allowed here. Who is allowed here? And where is here? Obviously the young man was just another trespasser and an inconvenience to the woman’s shopping experience, a tiny complex that should be cleared of any riff raff who make us uncomfortable about the reality of this country. How did that woman come to the conclusion that she can tell someone where they do or do not belong?
The question of belonging raises existential questions about who we are as people. The adage umntu ngumntu ngabantu suggests a sense of belonging as people, perhaps a sense of human solidarity; that we are because we have the ability to recognise each others’ humanity. But in the incidence I describe, someone lost their humanity: both people lost their humanity. The white women lost her humanity by denying another person his humanity by telling him he doesn’t belong here and humiliating him and the young black man lost his humanity because he is out begging in a country that strips him of his humanity everyday. And I lost out on an opportunity to become a better human being because I simply walked by without offering the young man anything or questioning the white woman about her response…and I all I could do is write about the incident.