Georgina Guedes

Beggars hold up a mirror to you

2012-12-06 13:23

Georgina Guedes

Sarah Britten
has started a blog, The Red Robot Project, to open up communication with and about beggars at traffic lights. It’s an interesting, discomfiting project that, if you engage with it, makes you let down the emotion-deflector shields that years of driving in Johannesburg have earned you.

I applaud Sarah’s project because I think it’s important to hold a mirror up to society to see what it reflects. The stories she tells don’t have happy endings. She’s not finding work for these people, or getting them off the streets, she’s simply letting herself notice them, and taking us along for the ride.

Anyone who lives in South Africa will agree that the economic gap is a problem. Beggars bring home – into our leafy northern suburbs – the reality of the unemployed, homeless and penniless that most of us would otherwise only hear about. And while it’s not possible for us to help all of them, and we often wonder if what we give can make an ounce of difference, we should try to remain aware, thoughtful and compassionate.

The urban myths

However, so many of us instead try to adjust reality to suit our need to ignore or harden our hearts against the problem. Here are a couple of the urban legends that spread about beggars. I’m sure you’ve heard them:

“My cousin’s boss was driving to work early, and he saw a luxury car driving along the same route. It stopped at every robot and a guy in tattered clothes got out of the back, went around to the boot and pulled a sign out the boot, and then set himself up on the corner, begging.”

Or how about:

“My best friend’s sister needed to clear out her garage, so she went down to the nearest main road intersection and asked the guys if they wanted to come and help her carry boxes for R50. They all turned her down – not one of them wanted to leave their begging posts.”

Or try:

"I know a journalist who interviewed a whole lot of these guys. They were reluctant at first, but when he explained that it would be anonymous, they opened up to him. Some of these okes are earning more than R1 000 a week."

The grain of truth

Whether or not these stories have any basis in truth, I have no idea. But their enthusiastic dissemination is calculated to do one thing: assuage the guilt we feel at the rampant inequality in this country by making us believe that beggars have a choice, are too lazy to work, or they earn a fortune.

I am sure that among them, there are isolated stories that contain a grain of this kind of truth, but it’s worth remembering that the majority of unemployed South Africans (and immigrants) are unemployed because there is no work, not because it’s more fun to sit on a street corner. 

Imagine standing there all day with a sign that’s an attempt at being funny, or holding your baby on your back in the hope that her plight, which terrifies you, will spur some person in their luxury car (hell, any car) into action.

The sun beats down on you, the rain drenches you, there’s no shelter, your feet are sore and you’re not dressed for this. You’re hungry, but you don’t want to leave your post to buy food in case you miss a generous soul, and you can’t afford much anyway because you’re trying to save for some clothes for your growing baby.

Other beggars fight with you, some drivers hurl abuse at you, and your worry for the safety of your baby is only overshadowed by your fear that you will both starve.

Why they’re there

That is why beggars stick to their posts. Not because they’re having fun or earning R4 000 a month or are too good to accept work stacking boxes. But because they’re hungry and probably homeless and have no alternative.

Give or don’t give – that’s entirely up to you, but don’t delude yourself that the need doesn’t exist. Look the next beggar you encounter in the eye and acknowledge him as a fellow human being whose plight is worse off than yours.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer, editor and trainer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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