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White beggar illustrates truth about poverty, race and...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

A rude white beggar illustrates the truth about poverty, race and the selective application of compassion

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Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist at Maverick Citizen.

When people argue that South Africa’s issue is not racism but poverty, there are many examples that prove this to be inaccurate, because our poverty is quite obviously racialised.

Speaking at an event at Evanston Township High School in Illinois, American author and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates explained that “to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do”. These words resounded in my head last weekend as I experienced the South African version of this.

An elderly white man sat down a few tables away from me and ordered a cup of tea at a popular restaurant in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. From the corner of my eye I saw him get up to walk towards what looked like the bathroom and ask out loud, to no one in particular, if this was where the bathroom was.

When no one responded, he proceeded to bang his fingers on my table to get my attention. Taken aback, I looked at him as he almost barked: “Is this where the bathrooms are?”

Annoyed, I replied tersely, “I don’t know”, because first, don’t bang on my table, second, do you know what “Hello” is, but most importantly, I don’t owe you any service or answers.

He emerged from the bathroom and then awkwardly surveyed the room. He then started going from table to table, asking for money. The first table declined, then the next and the next.

Now, what was interesting about this scene was the very specific tables he approached. He only went to the tables where white people were seated, even though the restaurant had a more-or-less even mix of black, Indian and white people.

As I watched this man going around begging at the tables, two things jumped out at me. First, had this man been black and looking the way he did, he probably would not even have made it inside the restaurant or had the confidence to walk inside. Security would have been set on him immediately.

Second, the privilege bestowed on him based solely on his skin colour meant that he had the confidence to walk in and right up to me, bang his fingers on my table and demand my attention without so much as a “Hello” or “May I ask if you know where the bathroom is?” – something that no black person (poor or not) would do to a white person.

This man, by the way, ended up leaving without paying the bill, and without any of the restaurant management or security kicking up a fuss that he had come in, ordered, gone around asking patrons for money and then not paid.

This incident bears mentioning because it is but one of the many racialised injustices and microaggressions that continue to play out in South Africa and that are ignored or dismissed.

When people argue that South Africa’s issue is not racism but poverty, these examples prove that statement to be inaccurate because our poverty is quite obviously racialised. Because when you are white and poor, the colour of your skin still means you won’t be barred from or thrown out of establishments that do not allow begging.

For the record, I have no issue with kindness or compassion, particularly when a person is down and out. What I take issue with is its selective application. DM168

Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist at Maverick Citizen.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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All Comments 9

  • For the record, I have no issue with kindness or compassion, particularly when a person is down and out. What I take issue with is its selective application. Isn’t this exactly what you have done?

  • Mate, if this is the norm, then go ahead and write about it. If it’s an isolated incident, then perhaps think twice!

  • If this article had been subjected to the three reader comment test, I suspect it would have failed as being irrelevant, racist and not factual. The writer has no idea of what that beggar’s background is, yet assumes it was one of privilege without mitigating circumstances.

  • You point out that the restaurant was occupied by an evenly mixed, racial diversity of patrons. To me (without specific evidence to the contrary) that suggests an environment where individuals of all races feel reasonably at home as opposed to one in which a poor person of darker hue would be shown the door and a paler one allowed to remain.
    The individual in question was undoubtedly offensive (although that may not have been apparent when he walked in and sat down) and a jerk. And he should have been asked to pay up and leave when he started going from table to table but the manager/ess may not have realised quickly enough exactly what was happening (did you complain to him/her afterwards?). But I think its a bit of a stretch to attribute this all to white privelige and to ignore the possibility that we (South Africa) are starting to become more racially relaxed and that he was just a jerk in the wrong place.

  • I walk with homeless people four or five times every week. I started that on March 26 of last year.

    It was an interesting article to read about the action of the white person in the restaurant.

    The reaction or lack of that from management towards this individual, of course, does not prove that we essentially have a racism problem and not a poverty problem.

    My observation over the past 15 months is that we have to a large extent a problem with “hopelessness”. People have lost hope in the system (some may argue that they have lost hope with the goverment, but I think they have lost hope with the state). They have lost hope in the church/religious systems, they have lost hope in people. Though many of those I walk with have told me that they caused some of the misery they are suffering at the moment, they experienced a breakdown in relations with friends and family.

    I have also met some people with obvious mental or psychological challenges. It almost seems to me that the person referred to in the article may belong to that group.

    The root cause (poverty or racism) aside, the main issue is: how do we fix it. The first part of the answer is for us to take personal responsability to do so. To fix the massive un- and under employment is our concern. We may want to use some of the state’s machinery to combat that, but we need to fix that.

  • This is a really sad story. May I however question if it was really racism – Zukiswa infers/ guesses that if the man had been black, he wouldn’t have gotten past security. This is a hang of an important guess, and might have some validity, depending on the history of the people and the restaurant, but it’s damaging to label everyone white on the basis of nothing more than your own prejudice!
    Blacks, Whites and in-betweens are all experiencing incidents of deeply unfair treatment – ask any teacher… and this kind of story isn’t helping us to move on. Believe me, Zukiswa, as an old white male, I relate to your complaint of unfair discrimination. Racism is horrid. Much worse for some than others, but we need to love one another and not stir up anger any more than helps.

  • Definitely something I’ve experienced too Zukiswa.

    “Researchers have (found) that women and Black people are harassed disproportionately (while online), so the digital public square is less welcoming to their voices.” Nonetheless, we persist.

  • Terribly biased article. One lived experience does not make the rule. If I would apply that to my experiences I would have to assume that call blacks are muggers and robbers. Clearly this is wrong and full of racial prejudice.

    Do you also come to such premature conclusions when positive things happen and for all races? Somehow I doubt it…

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