Opinionista Julie Cunningham 18 July 2011

Mandela Day: Mind the poverty gap

On Mandela Day, everyone knows that that biggest of South Africa’s many challenges is poverty. Better-off citizens are well aware of the problem, but they’re not often sure of how to deal with it. Many could not be bothered to act on the obvious and widening gap between rich and poor. For those that do act, charity is the chosen remedy. But for all our charity, the poor are still with us and are getting poorer.

It’s rare to drive past a traffic light on South Africa’s main roads without being confronted by the blind, crippled, mothers piggy-backing small children, the destitute and forgotten – all dependent on those who can afford cars to get them through another day without starving. The need is overwhelming and unrelenting, like many other challenges facing South Africans.

On this day – 18 July 2011 – we should be inspired to emulate Madiba’s values, but according to a poll on The Times’ website last night, only 23% of Internet users are taking part, and 74% on News24.com said they hadn’t thought of what to do. It’s easy to say, “Nelson Mandela was different. He stood up for the poor, the voiceless, but he was a saint. The rest of us aren’t “.

For some, the poverty problem might as well be a figment of the imagination. We acknowledge crime and act to make our communities secure, but we’ve become inured to the need that surrounds us, so much so that first-time visitors to South Africa are often shocked at the gap between the wealthy and the poor (like when flying over Khayelitsha to land at Cape Town International Airport). We’ve learned to mind the poverty gap.

There are well over 50,000 registered NGOs in South Africa, many more than there were in 1994, but our poverty problem persists. We give out of obligation, to tick the boxes, to appease our consciences and to temper the desperation of the poor, but our welfare isn’t working. Many businesses and organisations have given millions to improve poor communities, yet we hear so little about truly transformed communities? Charity is a Band-Aid that will keep the poor quiet, but only for so long. In fact, often the very charity we hope will uplift the poor, ends up fostering unrealistic expectations and entrenching their dependence. Their anger then simmers, ready to explode at another time.

Two weeks ago, during my weekly slot on Talk Radio 702 on nation building, listeners called in to share what they were doing for Mandela Day. A number of comments that I found patronising were made, “I’m going to be feeding the homeless like I always do”. I had to wonder, if any of these listeners, in doing their charitable deeds, had bothered to get to know the people they helped? Had they looked them in the eye? Had they asked about their lives? Did they know their names?

One of the requirements for the establishment of a stable democracy is a strong middle-class. South Africa has a middle-class, but the poor are the largest single sector of our population and they’re getting even poorer. With these numbers, we should all know a few people who are living in desperate poverty. We should know their names, their struggles, their hopes. But do we?

If we knew the poor, their names, their stories, if we wrote more about them, then it’d be impossible to ignore them. We’d also find the real solutions to their problems, instead of giving of time and treasures once a year and hoping that’ll be enough to see them through to the next Mandela Day.

Our poverty problem needs to be tackled in the same way as our crime problem – not by more security and more charity, but by getting our faces close enough to see eye to eye. Only then can we build mixed-race communities of differing backgrounds and economic classes that will establish our middle class.

If you don’t know where to start this Mandela Day, start with “Hello”, “Sanibonani”, “Molweni”, “Goeie môre” or “Dumela”. Changed relationships have always begun with one of these magic words.

One day of good deeds is not going to change our nation, but one day could be the start of a journey of lifelong relationships that could transform a community, one at a time. So before you start your good deeds, start talking. DM

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