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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  • carolyn.simshandcock - 2012-12-06 13:31

    I travel with a bag of apples in my car and give them away to the street kids - cost me so little but they seem so grateful - I don't know if the story is true that giving them money is a no-no because it is taken away from them by adults

      george.frangs - 2012-12-07 07:10

      There's that denial again rendier...

  • customdesign - 2012-12-06 13:33

    Nice sentiments. I worked with them and most of them generally landed up there of their own volition. Who I really pity are the street kids, they did nothing to end up there.

  • peter.gugelmin - 2012-12-06 13:37

    I have worked in Asia, surrounded by poverty on a scale, that makes our beggars look rich. But never, have I seen begging as it is practiced here

      evan.connock - 2012-12-06 15:09

      Not sure that begging is "practiced" here... Think you mean to say "perfected"

      peter.gugelmin - 2012-12-06 16:48

      fargone you are right, I stand corrected

      evan.connock - 2012-12-06 17:11

      @Peter, if you really want to see the lengths some go to, check out the "pro" on the William Nichol intersection leading to Monte Casino...his apparent infliction is so bad you would not wish I upon your worst enemy, and yet as they say, there is a sucker born evry minute. He's there because some people are stoopid enough to believe the act. i would bet the shirt on my back that if a huge Rottweiler leapt off the back of someones truck this guy would run with the fluidity of Usain Bolt!

      philip.boonzaaier - 2012-12-11 15:35

      @fargone. Yes, we saw him when last we went to Montecasino. My wife felt such pity for the poor disabled guy we gave him some money. On our way home, though, we saw the same guy, in the same clothes, miraculously 'healed', walking perfectly normally begging at an intersection closer to the N1!

  • allcoveredinNinjas - 2012-12-06 14:01

    It wouldn't be so much of a problem if it wasn't for the fact that if my car comes anywhere near to stopping when i drive , within seconds there is a beggar/car-guard . Ist kind of this de-sensitivity because of the shear load , often competing beggars too. I found a nice kid i support on the way home doing rubbish duty , can help some but not all and not all the time which is sad.

  • danny.levin.33 - 2012-12-06 14:06

    The day when a street kid came with pleading eyes and hands held in front of him... and proceeded to snatch my cell-phone... was the last day I felt any sympathy for any of them. I got out of my car, chased him and got my phone back. the people in the vehicle that was behind me saw what happened and guarded my car till I returned. many of these also commit smash&grabs. My advise, KEEP YOUR DOORS AND WINDOWS LOCKED and if you can get armor-film on your windows..

      marcus.vermaak - 2012-12-06 14:19

      Danny, can't help but agree with you. I've been robbed by a guy I gave R200 a month to, I know it's not much, but that's all I could afford at the time. Every morning we would chat if the traffic light allowed us to do so. After a few months of this, my wife lost her job, so we started to cut our costs and that R200 was the 1st to go. I explained this to him and we both understood the problem. The very next day, I had a smash and grab and gone was my laptop. Silly bugger, I gave him the shoes he used to run away with.

      lacrimose.wolf - 2012-12-07 03:42

      Yep - got caught similar. I was walking, though. Bright-eyed, pleading kidlet - maybe about 6 yrs old. Then out jumped 3x late-teens. The knife-wielding entourage (equally bright-eyed). They poked me in the ribs, several times. For my cell. Hate that society has created these peeps but also very, very wary of anybody now in my 'space' - even a kidlet.

  • charldene.fraser - 2012-12-06 14:20

    the street where i live has between 8 and 11 beggers sitting on the corner (and that is on a bad day) i offered to give the one a R10 on my way back from the shops only to have it thrown back to me with an attitude of what the f*&@# must I do with this, i want more. since then i dont give them a cent and rather donate whatever i can to the SPCA and to Epworhth Childrens Village.

  • regant.tau - 2012-12-06 14:24

    Very self-righteous

  • wayne.crocker.391 - 2012-12-06 14:28

    Although these people are "desperate" the solution is not giving them money at the robot. There many scams on the go regarding this activity. For example: The blind people that are being used at robots, the baby on the back approach, the children, the list goes on. The reality is that we have a society of poor but the solution is for them to help themselves. I personaly know of the Displacement Unit offring these people on the street the oppurtunity for work and a roof over their heads but they decline prefering to live on the street out of dustbins and begging because the facility is there. Support the organisatins that support these people rather than giving them the money.

  • coenraadt - 2012-12-06 14:42

    I do my part for the homeless and jobless. I get in my car every day, drive to work, work for 10 hours, get my salary after the 35% tax is deducted. Those taxes are then used to pay benefits to the 60% umemployed people of South Africa. The rest of my money is used to buy food and a home for my family. When i buy food with what is left after the taxes i've already paid, i pay 14% more tax on all the money i spend. The bottom line of all this is, give almost 50% of my money to the poor and unemployed.

      mike.bundy.73 - 2012-12-06 18:27

      I think they may have used a bit of your money to fix a pothole in my street last week. But I'm sure the rest of it goes to the poor ...

      jenny.nel.92 - 2012-12-09 19:56

      .... You do know that the tax you pay - and the tax that I pay - has gone into the lifts/bunkers/heated indoor pool/gym/many many houses/imported Italian decor (pick any or all) at inkandla. Not one poor person has received a cent. Not your fault, and not mine, but certainly not our fault that the homeless beggars at traffic lights increase in numbers by the day. We cannot save the world. We have all been ripped off by traffic light beggars and car guards ( my young nephew had a gun shoved into his mouth when he opened his car window to give a bagar some money, and his Cell 'phone stolen). We are hardened and desensitised. That is the grim reality. Do as you wish with your mirror, but this guilt trip is stale.

  • gemma.vandermerwe - 2012-12-06 14:59

    @ Holdanigono They did run away from home, but I'm guessing things was intolerable at home. There are however shelters and children's homes they can go to. Children should not be on the streets. We need more social workers to assist these children.

  • Steynje - 2012-12-06 15:02

    I honestly don't have a problem donating money to beggars. But in my area I have noticed a lot of young and older men "begging" (older as in 30 - 40). My question now is this: I don't have a degree. I haven't even had the chance to study, yet I went out and searched for a job. I got one too. So why can't they do the same? I work my *** off everyday, put in overtime like no one ever has and now I need to give away my money (hard earned) to beggars who is just plain lazy to find a job. Let's face it, it's easier to stand by a robot and beg than going out and finding a job. And for the record, I was without a job for nearly 2 years. It doesn't matter what your race is, what your education is like, you just need the drive to go out and get something. That's my opinion.

  • evan.connock - 2012-12-06 15:08

    I sincerely hope beggars do not hold a mirror up to us, each case must be taken on merrit. There is guy or team of them on William Nichol on the intersection going to Monte Casino, there is a fraid if ever I saw one, he has the most exagerated limp and crooked hand ( like his mind) to boot. he will walk toward the cars as if competing for a deformed cripples are us pageant and yet when he finnished the pass his style of walm is all too normal. When I see this sort of fraud I am inclined to be more hardcore on the others who may in fact have a legitimate need. If a man is cripple and cannot work, by all means support him but if he is playing at it, he desrves to be the cripple he seeks to imitate. Here in scam-a-minute SOuth Africa I tend to be all the more circumspect. i have made sandwiches with cold meat cheese and tomato for beggars only to find them thrown in the gutter further down the road later...I have limited sympathies.

  • stevie0064 - 2012-12-06 15:21

    "How much easier is it to be generous than just." ~ Junius

  • karlheinz.sittlinger - 2012-12-06 16:07

    I used to be that nice guy at the robot, helping financially, talking and being friendly at the robot. Last sunday a razor blade was held to my throat. Do i believe all beggars at robots are like that? No of course not... But i now no longer have the trust to take that risk. Have you had a deadly weapon pressed against you lately?

      evan.connock - 2012-12-06 17:15

      Am sorry that happened to you, but it does go to show just how easily it can be done. In many first world countries these gents would be arrested for loitering. Heaven forbid that here in SA you knock one down while he is limping around auditioning for Hollywood, you would be in serious trouble, they should not even be in the road.

      danny.levin.33 - 2012-12-06 17:41

      Yeap Fargone, that's why I say... keep your windows closed a doors locked - ALWAYS, let them all go beg in Nkandla

  • gary.landman - 2012-12-06 16:32

    The Red Robot Project... Now we have Communist Automatons too?

  • henry.mckonjes - 2012-12-06 17:39

    Firstly, I am concerned that you spell discomforting "discomfiting". That makes me wonder what it takes to become a freelance writer, particularly in a world where spellcheck is imbedded into everything. The second thing I will mention is that we all have a choice who we choose to support as far as charity is concerned - we cannot support them all - obviously. I personally have never given a beggar a cent. I have so much time and care for people that are down and out and are doing their best to stay afloat. Begging is lazy and an easy option. The fact that we see the same characters week in and week out is proof that begging pays. Compare that to a person who is actively seeking employment or trying to sell things (even if 99% of the time they sell absolute rubbish with no utility) - there is no comparison in my mind. The articles smacks of self-righteousness and is completely unbalanced. And that is for more DISCOMFORTING to me than the puppy dog eyes glaring at me at a red robot with indignation asking for a hand out.

      mike.bundy.73 - 2012-12-06 18:32

      dis·com·fit [dis-kuhm-fit] verb (used with object) to confuse and deject; disconcert: to be discomfited by a question.

  • flyswat - 2012-12-06 18:30

    Sorry, I will not feed your problem.

  • ben.small.98 - 2012-12-06 20:27

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but I witnessed a well dressed man putting out kids to beg at robots in Belleville. Some take a look in your car and message to others further on who smash and grab. Why do you not offer them a home and see if they want it? Get your facts before misleading people. Those supporting them helps to create crime for criminals to commit.

  • godesha - 2012-12-06 20:39

    Call me cold and heartless, but I refuse to give to beggars. Charity begins at home and besides, are you really helping them by giving? I would rather donate to worthy causes.

  • defjukie - 2012-12-06 21:19

    Comments I read here are shameful and pathetic. And its the reason we will always have beggars and SA will remain as it is... Sad Sad Sad :(

  • Gert van Coller - 2012-12-06 23:04

    My father-in-law went out of his way to help a beggar, who put his name up on the church's bulletin as a hard-working individual who will do any work. He also has a wife and a baby. My father-in-law organised a room for him and his family on his farm and a job at a small business nearby. To make a long story, the man was fired within two weeks because he stole money from the business and he and his wife wrecked the place in a drunken stupor. And by the way, he really does refuse to work. Now it also came to light that he's got three other children that was taken away from him by Social Services after he tried to put them alight. Not kidding. And now my father-in-law is stuck with a squatter on his farm, who also tried to put the farm alight a few days ago. Luckily he was arrested after someone saw him, but he was released the next day. The church, after providing food packages etc, are now washing their hands in innocence and leaving my father-in-law to deal with this 'unfortunate event'.

      flyswat - 2012-12-07 12:10

      Overly charitable people feed the problem. The UN is just a large scale version. The longer they feed the problem, the longer the suffering will continue.

  • robert.laurie.58 - 2012-12-06 23:29

    I have enough proof that some of them do not want work offered because they know they will get more money from begging. I will not support them. rather give the money to my church which distribute the money wisely amongst the poor.

  • mark.croxford.3 - 2012-12-07 01:18

    Instead of begging get some rags and windowlene and clean car windscreens at said traffic lights. Oh WTF am I talking about that involves doing something for yourself !!

      flyswat - 2012-12-07 12:17

      And then when they want to smear their oily, grubby, gritty, filthy rags all over your clean car, you tell them no thank you, they start swearing at you. Ya...

  • webTECH Nelspruit - 2012-12-07 06:05

    I not only personally offered work to more than one beggar and got turned down because the money I was offering was less than they would make at the robot, but had all my tools stolen by one that worked for me for two days. These are not urban legends, they are my personal experiences. If you want to help, give them food, or support a local shelter or soup kitchen. I am not hardened to suffering, but am very definitely allergic to laziness and sloth.

      amber.rancic - 2012-12-07 11:44

      I agree. I will gladly give them some food, and I support soup kitchens and other care organizations around the city, but I absolutely refuse to give them money. I've seen too many cases where the money is thrown away on drugs or alcohol - don't want to be the person enabling that habit.

  • tania.leies - 2012-12-07 10:40

    My mirror reflects a cynic who has heard 1 too many first hand accounts of beggar horror stories; who resents having to drive with her windows closed on a sunny day. Who decided that you are a bad person for not wanting to have an interaction at EVERY traffic light? We don't acknowledge every motorist that pulls up next to us - why must I interrupt my conversation/song/reverie to acknowledge a person who is in fact breaking a law by standing next to my car at that intersection? And you know what - I bloody smile and shake my head EVERY time. I'll informed bleeding hearts make my blood boil.

  • ponkie.diel.9 - 2012-12-09 20:45

    I spend some time watching small children begging on the corner of Barry Hertzog and Empire, as soon as they collected some money the would go between the shrubs and give the money to adults who are sitting around. They in turn go to a liquor store and buy booze. These children should be in school so the adults are not only abusing them to satisfy their need for alcohol, they are also denying them an education which means they will be illiterate but also unemployable and are growing up expecting handouts.

  • vernon12345 - 2012-12-10 01:08

    People who give them money and food just enable them to be back the next day.

  • Klaus - 2012-12-10 12:53

    Ms Guedes, as Taxpayers we support already some 15 million beggars, willingly or not, Personally i have no problem if you want to spend your money on mainly lazy people. Some years ago, in a interview with John Berks, a Hijacker & Thief was asked why he is not doing a honest days work, he replied why should he work 9 hours a day if he can make his requirements in minutes !!!

  • reine.marais - 2012-12-12 11:07

    There are two tragedies in South Africa. The first is that the tax money that people pay is not used to uplift those who need it. The second is the number of charlatans who have got onto the begging band wagon. Between the two of these, yes, people have become sceptical and cynical. I figure, if we get rid of the first and second tragedies listed above, you would find most people more than willing to help those who are genuinely in need.

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