“People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’ That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing. Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say ‘Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.’ Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer. People say ‘Oh that’s a handout.’ No. I still have to work to profit by it. But I don’t stand a chance without it.” Trevor Noah, from his book Born A Crime.
I’ve been wanting to write about what I’ve seen and felt since our arrival here, but haven’t really been able to construct an opinion about the overwhelming contrast of poverty and wealth in this part of the world because my thoughts are so often at odds and never finalized. As soon as I think I have formed a logical opinion, I am witness to something that doesn’t fit within my construct. Two books have been instrumental in helping me to see more clearly the moving parts of South Africa’s racial, economic, and social inequality, but I realize it is still only a partial understanding. Bryce Courtney’s The Power of One and Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime (although it is soon to be released as a motion picture, I beg you to pick a copy and read it. Thank you to the Morgan family back in Nashville for sending me here with a copy. I devoured it.) both get my highest possible recommendations.
I read The Power of One as a high school student. At the time I thought it was just a wonderful coming-of-age story set in an exotic land in a far off time. Coincidentally, as I was reading the book which chronicles the rise of apartheid, the system itself was being dismantled. Also coincidentally, last year I assigned and re-read the book as a summer reading option before knowing about our impending move. The Power of One shows the conditions and rise of apartheid from an outside but still privileged point of view. I think it speaks to the feelings of many South Africans who opposed the segregation and brutality of apartheid, but might have been caught unaware of how quietly and quickly the system of oppression was being implemented and how deep it would infiltrate South African society. As I read about DACA and deportations last summer, the themes of the book and the front page of the newspapers overlapped in striking fashion. Born A Crime examines at the dissolution of and the persistent ramifications of apartheid with personal stories that are both humorous and deeply unsettling. Even with the help of these texts, I struggle to make sense of what I see driving around one of South Africa’s most affluent cities.
You can’t help but notice the economic inequality here. Just go for a drive. The main mode of transportation for white South Africans is automobile. The buses and minibuses, the taxies, the bikes cobbled together from miscellaneous parts, and the pedestrians walking along the muddy shoulders of the road are the primary means of transportation for black South Africans. On every street and corner, there are people standing and waiting. Some are selling sunglasses or phone chargers or straw hats. Some are holding signs with tragic lines like “My wife was kidnapped. I need money for ransom” or “HIV Orphan.” They are heartbreaking. Most people are just standing around passing time. There so many people and yet so few resources and opportunity.
The other day my eldest son tugged at my conscience when we drove past a barely clothed young man who was maybe 10 or 12 at an intersection. I’ve never been so grateful that my son can’t completely read yet. “What did that boy’s sign say, Pop?” I swallowed hard. David, our driver, was sitting right next to me, and I was ashamed to have to lie to my son. “He’s asking for money.” I answered. From the back seat came a resounding positive “We should help him! He needs help, Pop. We are the Bennetts, we help people, that’s what you said Bennetts do. Why are we driving past him if we’re supposed to help people who need it?”
I love the young men of character and integrity that we are raising, but what do you say to that? Do I say we only help when it’s convenient? Or maybe respond with the bitter truth that we only help when the person looks like us and we feel comfortable. Do I answer with the harsh but realistic phrase like we can’t help everyone?
I was at a total loss.
David chimed in. “Drugs. He only wants money for drugs.” Grateful for the out, I explained to my sons about drugs and how not helping by giving money would make it more difficult for the boy to buy more drugs, so in a way were helping by driving past him. The boys accepted this, for now. I wondered what David was thinking about my rationalization. We clearly could have given him a couple of Rand, and it would have meant nothing in the grand scheme of things for us. But I didn’t, and that’s how it happened. In that moment I taught my white affluent sons to use their imaginations to justify not providing help to a human being who is clearly in need. I felt like I was going to throw up. I still do.
Every morning on the four mile drive to their private American school, we pass hundreds if not thousands of people who exist on one or two thousand Rand a year ($100-$200). Over the last four weeks living in hotels, the four of us have spent more than that eating out every week. So what do you do? I’m not and have never been religious, but I do identify and try to live by John Wesley’s moral credo.
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
The guilt and embarrassment I feel is real. And it is only loosely held in check only by my ability to rationalize the limits of compassion. We can’t help everybody. I am responsible for my family, my friends, my students, my immediate community. But when and where I choose to help is so subjective, that I find I’m often disgusted by my own lack of humanity in the choosing. In those moments I feel completely hypocritical.
We are in the process of trying to hire a domestic worker. This is euphemistic pun. Domestic means both in-home and locally hired. We are hiring someone to help cook and clean and provide child care. We don’t really need the help. We’ve been able to keep our house running over the years without paid help. With me not teaching, I have what feels like an infinite amount of time each day to make the meals and keep the family in clean clothes and our accommodations in order. Hiring a domestic worker feels wasteful in that I can clearly do this work without paying someone to do it for me. But at the same time by hiring someone, we are providing consistent employment and a paycheck to someone for the next four years. This is where a second issue arises. How much is someone’s time worth? Is it the going rate (which is well below basic living standards)? Is it what we can afford to pay? Because those numbers are so far apart they can’t be put in the same sentence. I hate the negotiations for these reasons. They force me to confront this terrible economic power difference which is so much easier to pretend doesn’t exist. By ignoring it I don’t have feel about it. How selfish is that? Read that again. It is so much easier emotionally to pretend there is no economic power difference than it is recognize it and address it justly.
We have a waitress here at the hotel, and I would like to think that we have become friends. She is wonderful in the mornings with our grumpy kids, and she has a light about her. I know I don’t know her, but she exudes happiness, so I like her. We’ve asked about her family. She has two girls, ages six and eight, who live a day’s travel away. She doesn’t see them often because she stays near the hotel and works six days a week. We were heartbroken to hear this story. Kids need their mom. Always and everywhere. Just this morning a German/European mother and her teen boys were seated at the table next to us. And like us, the mom inquired about the waitress’s family. Upon hearing about the existence of the girls, the women whimiscally said, “You’re so lucky. You have girls.” And the mom looked at her boys. “Girls are so much cleaner than boys.” She signed her check, snapped at her boys, and left without knowing the irony and insensitivity of her words.
It is a scenario I see playing out again and again here. There is so often very little awareness of the tremendous privilege we move through our lives wrapped in. (If you’re reading this, I do not mean to diminish the challenges you are facing. They are real, and they are significant. But being here is changing how I see the factors which shape our lives and our responses to those factors.) I am guilty of too often treating inconveniences as problems. There is a difference. If you have nothing to eat. If you are in fear for your physical safety. If you have no home or family, you have problems. Just about everything else in this life is an inconvenience. And ten days into this adventure I’m realizing just how much of my life has been inconvenient and how few problems I’ve ever really overcome.
Maybe you were expecting this post or maybe you were thinking that I would come here and not be changed. I don’t know what I was expecting. I think I’m well travelled. I think I’ve seen enough of the world to not have much surprise me. I like to think that I have always been aware of the unfairness of our society. But I also know that in America we are so good at dismissing poverty as a result of inaction or ineptitude. Wealth is usually always perceived as “deserved” in America. But here that isn’t the case. Slavery was legal only 25 years ago. Here the most sophisticated form of social oppression was a part of everyday life while I was watching the Barcelona Olympics. Here I’m forced to wrestle with the inequity every moment I’m outside of my hotel room. It is overwhelming and readily apparent and difficult to square with my world view.
In another instance of people being out of touch with the world round them, we witnessed a family (mainly the father) visibly upset at a waiter for an order that was wrong. That waiter might have travelled hours to this job to work for a trivial wage. He might have to risk his life walking on the shoulder of dark roads to get home again. He might have messed up the order, so what? The people dining at this particular restaurant might have problems, I don’t know, but I guarantee that all of them went home with full stomachs to sleep safely in their homes, and awake to a tomorrow that has the potential to be better than today. For so many people here, tomorrow will look exactly the same. Next week and next year and 25 years from now will (if they are lucky) look exactly the same. And here’s the kicker for me, I have only experienced a tiny slice of life in this very affluent part of this city which is a very affluent part of the country. Just 3 miles north of here is the Mamelodi Township. Nearly 400,000 people live there, and even 25 years after the fall of apartheid most residents still do not have the opportunity or resources to see any part of the city beyond the remaining apartheid-established boundaries.
And here I am, at a loss for action because of the overwhelming nature of the problems. There are simply not enough fishing rods.