On the Beach

Monday, 23 April 2012

The politics of begging

The thing I get asked about most often is cultural differences: are there any? If I think about it just for a second, I'd be inclined to say there are not, absolutely none. Short-ish flight, same language. It's not like there's a secret handshake, a secret nod or like you have to squat to go to the toilet. However, if I think about it for a little bit longer there are lots of little things- like the fact that some ethnicities don't understand your accent, the way food is prepared... In fact, there are about 100 blog posts I could write about these almost hidden differences.

It won't surprise anyone when I say that the difference between rich and poor in Cape Town can be very stark. Please don't go all tabloid on me and start imagining villages of corrugated iron shacks surrounding vast mansions. There are dwellings and people in between millionaires, palaces and destitutes and cardboard houses and it's not like shacks and the mansions share a common driveway. The distance between one and the other is great both metaphorically and physically.

Where there's poverty, there's begging and there is more begging in Cape Town than in London where I last lived. It's a different kind of begging. In London begging is more passive- generally its homeless people with signs, at most they might ask you for money in just above a whisper. Sometimes they'll have a dog, in extreme cases- baby (although that's more likely in mainland Europe).

In Cape Town, begging has a different style and is more prolific. Again, please don't imagine that there are hordes of beggars walking the streets in Cape Town, reminiscent of the Michael Jackson "Thriller" video. It's not like that. Like in London, beggars here tend to choose a spot and because they are very active, and sometimes very entertaining, you tend to notice them especially if you drive the same routes often ( they will choose a set of traffic lights, although never the same ones as the hawkers selling everything you could possibly need in addition to all the things for which you have no need or desire). And they will notice you and get to know you- and depending on whether or not you are a giver, they may or may not approach you.

Due to the number of people begging, I think, you simply cannot give money to everyone- and some people, as a matter of principle do not give money to beggars at all believing it is much better to give it charities that can constructively help, like U-Turn for instance.

And, interestingly, most people do seem to have a philosophy on this! A friend of ours says that having thought long and hard about it, he has decided to give money to whoever asks him directly. He has change in his car (and in South Africa you need change in the car for tipping anyway- car parking guards, petrol station attendants etc) and if they ask, he will give them R2, or whatever- because, not all ask, you see. He also says that he always buys the new Big Issue from the first person he sees selling it and displays it on his dashboard, replacing it with a new one when appropriate.

Others I know refuse to give any money at all, saying that's not the way it should be done. They claim that a lot of beggars beg rather than working as, according to some reports, it can be rather lucrative. Apparently, a person with a good site can hope to beg around R200 a day (which by the way, is above the average daily wage of a domestic worker and about the average of a gardener). They say that some "beggars" bus in to claim their "spot" in wealthier areas as it can be  financially rewarding.

I'm not sure where I stand on the issue. The reported unemployment rate in South Africa for the last quarter in 2011 was 23.9% which is a lot and some say that that is understated. The unemployment is mostly among unskilled workers of whom there is no shortage, a factor that has been exacerbated by almost uncontrolled immigration to South Africa from neighbouring countries, some of whom, like Zimbabwe are very troubled and therefore experiencing somewhat of an exodus. All that adds up to a lot of people with no income who may have to option but to beg.

Having said that, I know there are some wise guys (and gals) out there. And so I feel I can't give to everyone who asks. So I find myself doing these horrid little assessments on beggars- a quick check to see if he really does have one leg amputated at the knee or whether it's simply tied back (I've seen it!). Is that man really blind or faking it with sunglasses and a friend holding his arm? (again, seen it happen- the guys weaves between cars with ease, yet tries to do a Stevie Wonder Impression at the car window). I refuse to give money to beggars who are better dressed than me (OK- they could have got lucky at the second hand shop, but still). The guy who has been been at the same lights since I moved here, at all times of the day with a tatty sign saying: can't find a job. I keep wanting to tell him it might be an idea if he actually tried to find one, rather than hanging at the lights. My personal favourite is the guy who claims to be blind at the lights in one of the wealthier areas of Cape Town. Him and his friend are always very well dressed and recently have been displaying a series of laminated, printed signs which say things like: "I can't see all the beautiful things you can see.". Full marks for poetry my friend, NUL points for authenticity.

Like restaurants in Leicester Square in London, I suspect the wise guys rely on passing custom rather than return visits and, hey, I guess it's a business strategy of sorts isn't it?

But still, in place where there are a lot of "have-nots" compared to the "haves", a person with any humanity is constantly confronted with the choice of who to help and how. And you can't help them all. Everyone has a strategy, even if they haven't articulated it fully even to themselves.Some people help everyone who asks a little, others ask charities to help them help others.

And, cynical though it may seem, some of us do a quick business viability, strategy, sustainability and ethics test subconsciously on beggars every time we're stuck in a traffic jam.

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