Sibongile Mafu

Just work hard and you won’t be poor

2012-11-28 08:52

Sibongile Mafu

"Poor people are lazy bums, and if they would just work harder, they'd stop being poor."

There's a disturbing amount of people who prescribe to this thinking. All it takes to remove yourself from the helplessness of poverty is "that extra oomph". These kinds of statements are particularly depressing, and even harmful, considering the type of history South Africa has, as well as the sheer volume of people living in poverty. Last time I checked, in 2010, 6.4 million people were living below the poverty line; all of those people must surely be sloths.

Is privilege that blinding and delusional that when you look to those without, all you see is just "a lack of effort" on their part? All it takes to inhabit your comfortable position is a little blood, sweat and tears? This fortunate space of "not being poor" is one which cannot fathom that others could possibly be trying to better their lives in a system that won't allow it. Hard work is the exclusive right of the privileged.

Last night, 3rd Degree shone a light, however dim, on some of the appalling living conditions of farm workers in the Western Cape, as well as the paltry wages many of them are earning. Some earn less than R80 a day. They toil in the hot sun, working longer than the recommended air-conditioned office hours to earn just enough to not be on the streets. Yes, poor people don't work hard. Incredible. Some of the poorest people are the most hard working and determined. They're just poor. And if success and achievement is measured solely on the amount of money one has and assets they possess, then perhaps there's another debate in there too.

How the other half live

I'd always laugh a painful laugh when someone would say that all one needs is to think and motivate themselves out of poverty. These kinds of statements are exactly what takes the responsibility away from the haves.

You can easily dissociate yourself from the role you play in another having less than you, and put the blame squarely on the shoulders of those that often have very little means to get out of this situation themselves. As owners of business, and wine farms, in this regard, we then pat ourselves on the back when we give these sad people jobs, proudly proclaiming our roles in "job creation" and "bettering the lives of many" even when we continue to give them the least we can get away with.

When I was in varsity, studying journalism, we were made to go on those horrendous and cringe-worthy township tours to see how "the other half live". For most of the black people in my class, we'd been the other half so we knew, but we obliged and went along.

I can still say, with a fair amount of confidence, that driving through a township in the middle of the day is one of the saddest things one will see. A lot of seemingly capable adults are not working, getting frustrated on the streets, some turning to alcohol and keeping taverns ticking over every day.

Here the "poor are lazy" argument is also quick to be drawn out too, forgetting that a lot of the privilege that has those sitting inside the tour car as opposed to those outside of it, is due to the devastating effects of an organised, ruthless system.

We must be careful

We can continue to whip out the success stories too to make us feel better. This person suffered and struggled through a poverty-filled childhood and made something of themselves, but we cannot tell these stories at the vilification those who "don't make it out".

Sometimes we must be careful, that in trying to share the feel-good stories of the still frustratingly few who do manage to break out of poverty, that denigration of poor people is stopped. The opposite of success is not poverty, but rather a world where the poor are treated like second-class citizens.

So no, the problem is not that poor people have lots of babies, or drowning in debt. The problem is the laziness of the privileged to see beyond their own realities.

- Sibongile is a videographer, blogger and social media enthusiast who would be nothing without her thumbs. Follow her on Twitter: @SboshMafu.

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