Thursday 3 December 2015
We Rise By Lifting Others
Author: Lexi Daoussis, COPAC In-turn and Food Sovereignty Campaign Activist
The past couple of weeks I’ve been driving home and passing the man on the street pictured above. While there are many people on the streets living in extreme poverty and inhumane situations, he caught my eye in particular, and you can probably see why. He limps on his right leg, partly because I think that shoe doesn’t have a sole on it, while the other one doesn’t have a tongue.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to just speak to him, I had to ask him how he got there. He was obviously smart and had a moral understanding. So I brought him some fruit, sat with him for some time and spoke to him about his life.
His name is Siyabonga, he is 23 years old and this is his story:
“I was doing good with my uncle before I ended up on the street. I come from at home to come here for a job.”
“Where’s home?” “KZN. That’s where my grandmother and aunties and my sister is. I don’t have parents. They died when I was very young. I don’t know how old but it was before I really understood or had any of experience of life you see.”
“And your sister? Where is she, how old is she?” “She is in KZN, she was there when I left, I haven’t seen or spoken to my family since I left. I don’t know how old. Her birthday is March 18, 1982.”
“How did you get here?” “I came by taxi. I came in 2011.”
“So where is your Uncle now?” “He lived close to here in Joburg. I worked for him when I first came. But you see when I first came he was always sick, he was a miner. He always had a cough, then the other day after work we come home, he started coughing real badly. We were laying down to sleep and he started coughing up blood, it came out from everywhere man his throat, through his mouth, his nose, it was coming out of his ears. I started screaming and picked him up, I was weak but I ran outside holding him, I was running in the street and in the pavement begging people for help, but nobody stopped. Even a police car drove right by me, my friend called an ambulance, but when they got there it was too late. I knew he was dead when I saw them put the plastic over his head.”
“He was getting paid good rands. We were able to stay in the city and have food every day. After he died I stayed alone in the place because it was paid for the rest of the month, but towards the end of the month they started shouting at me, they told me I had to leave because the money was out and I had no more to pay, so you see now I am in the street.”
“How long ago did your uncle die?” “In 2014. I was doing good at first, I was able to sell the air fresheners and things for the car at the robots, I could afford to eat at least when I was doing that. I used the rands from my earnings and with my uncles to buy some from the guys who provide them, then I was able to make a little money each day.”
“Who provides them?” “The guys, I don’t know what you call it in English, but they sell maybe like 10 to us cheap, and then we can sell them to people for a little more, and that way we make a little bit of money. But maybe like 7 months ago it was I think, the metro police came and they started beating us. I was sleeping in Rosebank park, sometimes I sleep there and sometimes I sleep in Zoo Lake park. There are many of us there, all of us just trying to survive out here. It was in the middle of the night when they came, they started beating us and taking our things and our money, then they set one man on fire. They set my blanket that I had on fire, and it burned through me to my clothes (he showed me his scars and torched skin). I was saving some money to try to take a taxi or a bus back home to KZN but I lost all of it then along with my things to sell, so since then I have been begging, and I am just trying to go back home. My family I know they worry about me, but I can’t get to them. I worry about them, I worry if they are even still alive. My family needs me, I was sending them money every month, so now I don’t know what has happened to them.”
“That is why I tried to come to Joburg I came to try to find some work and my uncle said he could get me a good job. It was great until he died. Then things changed in Joburg and now I am stuck here. I am crying with my heart to go back home, I pray to go home, I ask God every day to send me home. I am crying please and begging to go back home to my family.”
I had some tears in my eyes at this point. He didn’t though. He stopped for a second and powered through a mango that I had given him in a bag of fruit.
“Thank you for the food, it is very nice. I haven’t had food in 4 days I think now. Sometimes people give me food but a lot of times it is rotten food. Ya know they think we are crazy, or we are sick, they think our heads are not okay, but you see we are like each other, I am a human being like you, I know your skin is white but I am like you. I think they are afraid of us out here begging, but we are not the guys who make crime. I am not trying to hurt people to take from people. Or they think a lot of us are on drugs or maybe drink, but you see I couldn’t even afford that before I had to turn to the streets, most of us are just living life badly.”
“I had some biscuits from the church this morning, they give us 2 every day, a lot of guys go and line up there. I go to the church every morning and I pray, I am not the first visitor because they don’t let us in first, so sometimes there isn’t any food left for us, but I still pray. They make tea and biscuits for the first visitors only. I have a headache so bad even right now because I am so hungry, and I have been fasting so I can survive. I am busy begging but it’s so hot out here hey, especially right now, I think we are headed into summer time because it has been so hot. But then we have been getting some rain lately too, so I am not sure. When the weather changes it is brutal, I am sleeping in plastics in the park, and at night it gets so cold. When it rains it gets even worse. Some guys have been hit by lighting too in the park, when they sleep under the trees and it rains, they never wake up the next day. “
How did this become a standard, to which the poor live by and the rich live by?
“What about crime, would it be easier for you to steal, and make money that way?” “I am an honest person. I don’t make crime, even if I wanted to I am too weak and too hungry, I don’t have the energy. When I stand up I get dizzy. This is why I beg, but most of the time they don’t help. There are those who help like you but maybe 20% give, the rest don’t. There are not enough and too many that don’t give. They drive by in their fancy cars, and I just need some food man. Besides I didn’t grow up with crime, my father one time beat me for taking food off my sisters plate when I was very little. Then I didn’t know but we didn’t have enough for all of us to eat, ever since then I never take anything from anybody. They make it hard for us out here, we can’t find jobs that pay enough, education is expensive, they don’t help us when we beg, that is why there is a lot of crime. Some guys say they steal or they starve.”
“I don’t have a plan anymore, I want to go home but I don’t have a plan. Every time I try something bad happens, and some days I think it would be easier for me to give up.”
He was quiet for a moment while we went through a banana. He ate the banana, peeled the inside of the skin off and ate that, then he ate the skin.
How did we as humans create a world where this is possible?
“I grew up hard. Life now is harder, but it has always been hard. We lived in Pretoria before my parents died. I have lived in informal settlements my whole life, now I don’t have any place to stay. My mother was Setswana and my father was Zulu. When they died I went to KZN to live with my aunties and my grandmother. My sister took care of me but when I got old enough I had to work for the family. I left school after grade 10 and started working.”
“When I think about my father the way I will end up to see him I think I can cry. Sometimes I cry alone, I think that maybe God even he don’t like me. I think that it would be easier to hang myself, it’s the end for me that would be easy, because there’s no action better for me now. But then I think how would I get rope? But there’s no sign of change. The ANC they are fucked up. Zuma he is fucked up. They do this to us, and then they don’t help us. There are no jobs for us anymore. I would quit begging today and work if I could find a job, but they take them. I don’t know why they hate us, but they don’t want to see us out here. The ANC sends the police to kill us, I don’t know why man, they don’t want us out here. I am trying to survive. They are corrupt and they take money, Zuma has that big plane to go places, but me and so many other guys we don’t have food.”
He was quite for another minute. He sucked down some lychees, and was staring at the other side of the street. There was another man there who was begging. About 30 minutes before I had drove by and given him 5 rands. He didn’t have a right hand.
“The guy with no arm does really well out here. Most of us don’t make as much as him. He has a place to stay and a taxi picks him up every day, many people shop for him and give him things because ya know his arm. I am happy for him that he does so well, but when we’re out here next to him I don’t get anything. It makes it hard for me and the others too. But all foreign beggars do better, if they tell them they are from Zimbabwe or Malawi or Mozambique they do really well. Even in the workplace, the malls and the shops and places, they are all foreigners. Even some of the guys in the mines are foreign, they come here looking for work but end up begging or end up in crime. But me from KZN, they tell me to go ask Zuma, they tell me to go beg to him, because I am south African it’s my fault that an idiot got to be president. He doesn’t help us, they don’t help us, who is going to help us?”
“Here in the streets it is hard. You see in life like this, there is nothing nice. You live without enjoying anything.”
Siyabonga would be labeled as a beggar. By profession that would be the correct label, however what is precisely wrong with society is that we have created a separation between humanization and dehumanization. Labelling him as a beggar dehumanizes him as a human being.
As a race entirely this poverty gap is dehumanizing. Not only for those who are below the poverty line, but for us above. The fact that we all are living in a world where this is not only possible but also created by humanity is dehumanizing. We have failed at humanization precisely.
It’s immoral, it’s inhumane, it’s unjust, and pardon my French but it is bloody plain fucking wrong.
Maybe you have answers to my earlier questions, “how did we get here?” Capitalism, corporations, corruption… and so on. And you’re not wrong.
How did this become the standard? Humans created this standard. We collectively as a human race let this become the standard. It flowed through every single one of our veins and brainwashed our minds, it happened underneath our noses, it happened through an intricate web of decision making that became consumeristic lifestyles. We became capitalist crusaders and suddenly it became okay to turn our heads away from the poor in the chances that it may screw up our personal paths to success.
It became a standard of living, the rich and the poor, and the divide between them: aka the poverty gap.
The mindset of “every man for himself” is what got us here. A selfish society has been born creating a hierarchy and sense of entitlement. A sense that all poor are lazy, unmotivated, or that if we give them money they’re going to go spend it the wrong ways. While there may be a select few that fit that description (let’s assume maybe 5% of the poor) the rest have been fucked by life and would desperately like to get back on their feet.
When did we stop lifting other human beings?
Unfortunately like my friend said he is not alone, there are a lot of people out there hoping to have some food to eat tonight. And like he said, “the ANC is fucked up” and he’s right. Governments are corrupt, and they are creating mass inequality across the country, then taking away basic human rights and forcing these people to last resorts. We are blind to think corporations aren’t in the pockets of leaders. I will even go as far to say that leadership is partially responsible for the alarming levels of crime out of poverty. We already know they are responsible for inequality.
These situations of extreme poverty are not indigenous to South Africa, and poverty gaps are widening all across the world. Not only that, but the poor are oppressed. We can try to pretend that the people living below or above the poverty line have similar opportunities as everyone else, but that is simply untrue.
Do you really think Walmart is going to hire a guy that walks off the street, wreaking of body odor, in dirty clothes and torn shoes, with no money, no resume, no anything? How is he going to deposit a paycheck if he doesn’t have a bank account? How is he going to set up a bank account if he doesn’t have any identification or residential address? To think that these people are just as capable of getting back on their feet as we are is pure ignorance. I would love to see the poor become unionized and join an organized labor force too, but until the system changes and provides them the skills and opportunities to do so, it isn’t okay to keep looking away.
Since people like myself live above the poverty line, I can sit back on my laptop and iPhone and pretend that the social work I’ve done for the day is enough. I can sit here and write this blog post, hope it goes viral, and that I can raise some money to get this guy a bus ticket back home. But what about the other guys? What do they get? While I am one of many who are actively working to change this system, and while every day I am surrounded by people who are on the same mission as me, there aren’t enough. There aren’t enough who are selfless enough to commit themselves to a deeper moral understanding.
Now maybe you can try to make the argument that there are tons of organizations out there who do things to “help the homeless” or “feed the hungry”. The truth is so many of these social organizations are run by billionaires and corporates who use their money and power to essentially cushion the effects of the social injustices they are responsible for. They are basically lessening the effects of their actions on these people’s lives, in small, insignificant ways. I’m not saying that they don’t help, but they aren’t doing anything to bring about significant change and when it really comes down to it, most of them aren’t willing to drop a cent on these people. To solve this problem it is going to take system change, reformation, and revamping the standards by which we live.
I know what you’re going to say next, “Lex, you’re talking about an ideal world, which we don’t live in.” “It’s going to be really difficult to create a massive shift in society” “there’s already so much damage done it’s too late to fix it” And you’re 99% right. I am talking about an ideal world, that we don’t live in, and it will be really difficult to create a shift in society, and there is already so much damage done that some of it is unfixable, but not all of it.
So if you have the nerve to tell me that, then answer this: Why does it keep having to be this way?
I know we don’t live in an ideal world, but I also know that I am not naïve to think we can. However, we are naïve to think we can keep surviving on Mother Earth if we keep letting her go the way she is going. It is too late to be a pessimist my friend, the answer can no longer be “oh well, that’s the world for you, it’s a mess.” It won’t be long until shortages kill the poor and reach the middle class. One day you will open your front door and be greeted by poverty, tell me little Earthling what will you do then?
This is a war against the rich, against corporations, and against leadership. It is led by the poor, by the working class, and the middle class. If we lift others, if we lift up all of these people, they will lift us, and together we can all rise up and create change.
Just think about it. It’s pretty simple.