Beggars in shopping malls

2010-09-30 00:00

BEGGARS confront us everyday. What do you do when a person arrives, looking pitifully desperate, begging for a hand-out?

Perhaps we’ve developed routine methods of response: we quickly search our pockets and flick a rand; shrug sympathetically; squirm uneasily in the car looking to our side compartments; or, perhaps, because suffering has become so normal in our society and it has deadened our sympathies, we walk past, or wind up the window and stare blankly ahead. Or — worse still — we blame the beggar for his or her position, as if anybody on Earth would actually choose this sort of public humiliation.

Our days go on. And eventually, our lives go on.

We grudgingly accommodate these minor irritations in our otherwise seamless disconnect from the abject poverty that coexists in our midst. And we blame the government, for not doing enough with our taxes, to soothe our conscience.

But what are our emotional reactions?

Is it compassion, seeing children who are forced into this degrading life of misery? Is it an exhausted apathy? Is it irri- tation that our cosy bubbles of comfort and security are burst on a regular basis? Is it frustration with our politicians, whom I doubt see beggars at all (given their constant shield of bodyguards and tinted windows), or do we feel guilty that due to historical accidents and entrenched current inequalities, some of us are better off than others?

Sihle Mlotshwa (The Witness, September 28) highlights the guilt factor and I think that it’s an important emotion to explore.

A few weeks ago I was approached by a young girl who asked me to spare her some change. Her mother would be waiting, she said, for her to bring home the day’s earnings, which still wasn’t enough. She was untidily dressed, her face filled with gloom and her desperation was evident.

This scene was unusual because it played out inside a busy Durban shopping mall, near the cinemas and surrounded by scores of people her age holding slush puppies which they would not finish and popcorn which they would throw at each other.

I could not help but feel guilty. Let’s face it, shopping malls are ignoble symbols of hypercon- sumerism­. We continually spend more and more on things which we need less and less.

A beggar in a mall violates the capitalist sanctity that these shelters from the outside world have come to serve.

Forget all social ills while you partake in unbridled, unnecessary spending, says the unspoken slogan of our times.

The devil on my left shoulder says, “So what? You’ve worked hard to get where you are and you deserve to spend your money in peace … you pay your taxes and even give to charity now and then”.

The haloed angel on my right asks, “But is it enough to give a little here, a little there? Is it enough to pay taxes which, if the government didn’t forcefully take from us, few of us would willingly part with? Surely, you can do more?”.

And so I, and perhaps others too, sit with this uneasy mental debate, which is mainly driven by guilt.

All the while, a little girl stands waiting, the fate of her hunger in my hands. And we could argue, what’s the point? She’ll be hungry again tomorrow, asking somebody else.

Yes, hand-outs are not sustainable, definitely, but our constant confrontation with people who are desperately seeking charity should at least catalyse us into doing something more sustainable, in whatever small way we can.

In a similar vein, Mlotshwa’s article asks a key question — does the black middle class care about the poor? Of course, we must extend this to all of us, the whole middle-class lot, who largely live our lives uncritical of our own class positions. This is a generalisation, but it is not unfounded.

The gap between the rich and the poor has widened so abnormally that South Africa continues to hold the shameful title of the most unequal society on Earth (as measured by the Gini coefficient).

My questions for readers are, do we care only because we feel guilty, or do we care because of a genuine sense of humanity that is evoked in us when we see such ghastly differences in living conditions?

Do we even care at all?

• Suntosh Pillay is a clinical psychologist and public writer.

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