I recently came across a blog by Sandile Memela called None but the poor can save themselves which left me feeling rather disturbed. So much so, I decided to write this response to what I thought was a largely elitist, individualistic view on a crippling human rights issue that, by virtue of us being human, makes us part of THEM. Even though he made a few points which I felt were true, I found myself saddened by how far removed he sounded from the far-reaching effects of poverty.
Memela began his blog by saying: “Poverty is not a priority problem in this country. In fact, it does not deserve the status that it has been given. What is needed is to provide for the material needs of the poor through infrastructure-building and inspirational messages. It is enough that that is being is done.” (Ok, so I have to say upfront: I am going to make a concerted effort not to be An Emotional Creature about this, but it’s going to be difficult.)
Let’s begin, firstly, by establishing a common understanding of the term poverty. I am of the view that poverty refers to an individual or household’s ability to effectively meet their basic needs and, further, to operate on an equal footing in their society. Furthermore, when we take into account society’s characteristics, those individuals whose standards of living are unacceptably low relative to the rest of society would be considered to be living in poverty. And by basic needs, I am referring to at least the first two levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (biological/physiological; and safety) as well as the opportunity to achieve the top three (belongingness and love; esteem; and self-actualisation). All of five levels, by the way, are articulated in the South African Bill of Rights, meaning that everyone has a constitutional right to get to the final stage of fulfilment (self-actualisation).
That being said however, we all know that we don’t live in an ideal society so the VERY least our, constitution-upholding government, can do is to make sure that they create an environment in which everyone has the opportunity to meet these needs. Hence I completely agree with Memela when he says that infrastructure building and “inspirational messages” are the fundamentals of poverty-alleviation. What I have problems with, is everything else in that paragraph (and on most of that page). Memela implies that our government already provides this infrastructure to the “poorest of the poor” and therefore poverty does not need to be a priority. But we all know this is not true. We don’t even have to go as far Vaalbank (Eastern Cape) to know that there are people who live in communities that don’t have water, electricity, sanitation, proper health care systems or functioning schools… never mind the scores of homeless people on the streets (not all of whom are lazy leeches by the way). One needs only to turn on the news or open a newspaper to know that many municipalities aren’t fulfilling their ends of the social contract.
Memela then goes on to talk about how poverty should not be an excuse for failure and lists people like Judge Hlophe, Dr Mampela Rampela and Madiba etc to reinforce his point of how people overcame hardships in order to become the renowned individuals they are today. He even goes as far as to callously make statements such as: “The fact that some teachers in mostly black schools are under-qualified, demoralised and demotivated, drink a lot, and have affairs with pupils may be a factor for failing pupils but is not an excuse” and “Granted, the poor are, largely, a product of the 1913 land dispossession, economic injustice and dehumanising policies of colonialism, apartheid and racism. But we also have to accept that the poor reproduce and create themselves through spiritual poverty or lack of ambition”.
Let’s forget about Memela’s trivialisation of the land issue for a second because I think President Jacob Zuma’s response to Peter Mulder at the State of the Nation debate is still fresh enough in our minds for the rest of us to know better.
The Eastern Cape is considered to be the poorest province in South Africa. It also happens to have the lowest matric pass rate in the country, and the situation seems to be getting worse by the year. It would be naive (at best) to assume that poverty and school performance are not connected, especially when one considers the effects walking long distances and having nothing to eat all day have on productivity. And we haven’t even taken into account the added challenge of studying in a language you don’t understand and the fact that these drunken, disinterested and abusive teachers are the ones moulding these young minds into young adults who think that this is the way adults are supposed to behave. The biggest mistake, I think, made by Memela is taking exceptions to the rule and making them rules in themselves. If it really was as simple as hard work and commitment, all those children who fight the odds on a daily basis but continue to be swallowed by this famished road called poverty would yield different results. I’m not talking about those who continue to fall pregnant in hopes of “earning” R270 per month per child. I’m specifically talking about individuals who have to survive the hardships of living without basic human rights, every day, before they can even think about overcoming them. (Mind you, we need to be very careful not to let being educated blind us from the differences in cultural beliefs, such as children and grandchildren being a sign of wealth. Granted culture needs to find ways to survive the realities of society, but we should never become so far removed that we belittle them or completely cast them out as non-existent)
The fact of the matter is that it is difficult, virtually impossible, to dream on an empty stomach. It takes that special kind of dreamers to see beyond the degradation and struggles of living without regular meals, water, electricity, sanitation, access to effective healthcare and an education system that supports, nay, facilitates success. Children without pens/paper/roofs over their classrooms or even available teachers are NOT on the same footing as children who have small classes, libraries, computers and swimming classes, so they cannot be expected to perform as well. It is the ROLE of government to ensure that an equal platform is created for ALL South Africans, so that everyone can begin to take responsibility for their lives and contributing towards building an ideal society.
The problem with a lot of black elites is that they are quick to forget. They work hard, move to the suburbs then forget that no matter how hard they worked, they didn’t do it alone. They achieved their success by standing on the shoulders of communities and/families that believed in them. They were encouraged, sacrifices were made for them and as a result, they became what they are. But now that they’re “made”, they forget that they also have an obligation to give back to their communities (or families at the least) so that someone else can make it as well. Hence they say things like none but the poor can save themselves. For every success story, there are a few sacrificial lambs, to which the successful owe their success. So such statements become concerning, not only because they reflect a sad case of individual amnesia, but also because they lead to a society of forgetful ingrates.
There is a Zambian proverb that goes: When you run alone, you run fast. When you run together, you run far. This proverb basically acknowledges that, yes, it’s easier to do things on your own and better yourself, but it is so much more rewarding to accomplish more with many. Albeit at a slower pace. Africans are not naturally individualistic creatures. Since the beginning of time when we first began walking this earth, we have been walking it as a community, and we cannot allow ourselves to forget this. So for as long as poverty is an issue, it needs to be a priority! This doesn’t mean that it should be an excuse for people to get funding for pseudo NPOs or that it should be a political card for election campaigns. It just means that we need to get to a point where everyone is running from an equal footing. That way, we save the sacrificial lambs, who would otherwise (by elitist, individualistic views) be left to fend for themselves. And the only way to do that is for us to run together. The rich NEED to be active participants in alleviating poverty for both selfish and communal reasons. If there are less people in need, the haves will feel less threatened because there will be less of a financial, economic and emotional strain on them. Also, it will mean that we can start zooming in on the true societal ills that are caused by delinquents with malicious intent, as opposed to speculating on the relations between poverty and crime.
Perhaps elitists such as Sandile Memela need to visit their families ezilalini or in the townships so that they can remember whose shoulders they have been riding on. And then maybe when they remember, they will realise that when there is a lack of basic human conditions, it is the duty of EVERY human being to do something about it. In the words of Mak Manaka: How dare you romanticise poverty as though it’s HIP to be poor!”
To read Sandile Memela’s blog: