Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Do you give to beggars at robots?


Johannesburg is full of three things:
• Cars. (The city is obsessed with them.)
• Traffic lights (or, as we like to call them, robots).
• And beggars.
At red robots, all three come together. And every Joburg motorist therefore needs to have a view on beggars. A strategy, if you like. Do you give? Do you not give? Who gets? Who doesn’t?

I have spent a year agonising over beggars. I drive a luxury vehicle, so it looks like I have loads of cash to spare — though as a freelancer who spends way too much time on projects that don’t bring in any income, this isn’t strictly true. I also know how unbelievably privileged I am compared to them. So beggars induce paroxysms of guilt even as I resent their presence and frequently ignore them.

On December 6, the Pulse of the City campaign comes to an end after two years and I hand back my mobile, climate-controlled happy place. I wanted to mark the occasion in some way. Two weeks ago, I made a last road trip, travelling to Hoedspruit and visiting touristy sites like the Three Rondavels for the first time ever (it was breathtaking – can’t believe it took me so long to discover them). I’ll be reminiscing about the wonderful times I’ve had in the car, from visiting Khulubuse’s auction to feeling like a million dollars when I drove down 4th Avenue almost a year ago. But I also want to do something uniquely Joburg.

So I’m going to try an experiment. Instead of ignoring the beggars, I’m going to do the opposite. I’m going to give to every beggar I encounter — and not just something small, like R5, but something big, and document the process. I’ve handed out about R800 so far this month, and I’ll hand out at least twice that this week – an amount that would normally have me breaking out in hives. But what the hell.


I’ve called it The Red Robot Project and you can read about it here. The idea came about after ignoring yet another beggar and feeling guilty about it. That’s when the thought occurred to me: what if I stop hoping they’ll go away if I pretend they’re not there? What if I open my window to let the world I want to keep out, in? What if I simply let go of all of those usual reasons — it’s not in my budget, I don’t have cash with me, I’m in a bad mood — and gave away more than I’d ever normally consider rational?

As part of the project, I interviewed beggars for a video (which isn’t quite ready yet – I really do need to learn to do without sleep). Here’s John Makoko, who begs in Morningside, and Kenneth Matlala, who keeps his CCMA papers with him in the hope that someone will help, and Comfort and Elias, both from Zimbabwe.

The idea is not to be preachy or self-righteous. I certainly don’t want to guilt anyone else into doing the same; how and why we choose to give is a matter of personal choice. And while the money will help a few individuals in the short term, I’m under no illusion that I’m doing anything sustainable to solve a massive problem that goes to the heart of this country’s social problems. (One observation: more than half of the beggars I’ve interviewed are Zimbabweans.)

But I can start a conversation. Maybe get you thinking. And I can tell the stories of people who stand on the side of the road while other people drive past. Because often a story is the only thing that people have to sell.

Let’s see what happens.

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    • suntosh

      Wow – awesome!

      This topic is so important, because beggars represent the intersection of the haves and haves-not, the confrontation of classes and histories.

      This is my constant, daily mental battle – to give or not to give, and the all the implications/values/assumptions/beliefs contained in the choice I make.

      Some of my own thoughts are here:

      Good luck: “often a story is the only thing that people have to sell” – I couldn’t agree more.

    • Dave Harris

      Another very thought provoking article. I think most of us face this dilemma – to give or not to give.
      Over the years however, I’ve ceased to cast judgement or look on them as potential criminals. So my views have evolved markedly from my original stance to one of generosity whenever I can. However, even if I decide not to give a beggar anything, I try never to ignore them, but acknowledge them as fellow human beings worthy of respect.

    • The dictator to save you from yourselves

      good on ya. I hope it pays dividends…

    • Kobie Venter

      I am also frequently in two minds about this, like probably everybody else.

      What is a fact though, is that by giving money, I am driving a certain behaviour. I am rewarding the behaviour of giving up on life and doing nothing for an income. Surely the problem must grow if we support it? It also increases inflation (i.e., money for no work). So am I being part of the problem or part of the solution (whatever that may be)?

      Should our natural weakness to feel sorry for people not rather be converted into employing these individuals rather than paying them without expecting something back?

    • Francoise

      Whilst there is no way I can afford to dish out the kind of money you are giving, I give according to my mood, the way they beg and if I have change on me. What I don’t do is ignore them – no-one begs out of choice, so they deserve more than that, to be acknowledged is the very least a human being deserves. However, if they don’t take ‘no’ for an answer and keep insisting then there’s no chance I will ever give them anything.

      This is despite the fact that they actually freak me out sometimes by suddenly appearing at my window. Last year I was on the receiving end of 2 smash-and-grabs and I am still terrified when anyone comes close to my car, regardless of where it is.

    • Richard

      Please tell us more about your interviews.

      Here’s my angle. I don’t, anymore.

      When I was a student, I used to give to the beggars who came to the house I shared with friends in Melville. I’ve always given at robots. I’ve given car-guards. I always greet the guys who live on the river when I go past. They’re people, like us.

      However, by giving them money you’re creating an incentive. It’s really not too far from forcing that person to stay on that same street corner, day in and year out, learning very little except dependancy. In Sunninghill there was one woman who stayed in the same place for about 4 years. I don’t want that for her, and I don’t want that for the country because it makes us less competitive, not more.

      We need more people who understand the value of doing something valuable for others. so I’d prefer, if possible, to create an incentive for them to become active participants in the economy. I really feel for them, I do. But I’d prefer to think up ways to move the needle on their usefulness. Teach a guy with a missing leg how to work a phone. There are courses for phone support people. One cleaner I worked with did a course like that and is now happily employed, learning about computers and whatnot.

      Still, it’s certainly possible that some are really in need and just need to survive another night. So to keep our humanity there can never be hard and fast rules. But as a systemic solution, giving to robot beggars sucks.

    • a1

      These days i find myself turning up the music, putting my hand up in front of my face to ignore them, sometimes i give cash, sometimes food, drink, cigs,i joke with them i talk with them, at 1 point i took all my old clothes, and went handing them out to all the guys at robots in my hood. i was curious to hear their stories as well, And would give the regular guys thereafter they always expect something.i dont drive a fancy car(golf1) and honestly i get annoyed more and more everyday….its gone viral!!

      i take my hat off to you for this initiative,and making yourself more aware of their situation,instead of always blowing them off all the time.

      However the issue with all of our compassionate feelings, is that we are perpetuating the problem even more, without creating a viable sustainable solution which noted(homeless talk newspapers is at least 1) . And these guys get enough cash standing at robots.they dont need to work, beg get dronk and eat. thats sustainable

      excuse my poor gramma and puncuation, the internet has made me stooopid.

    • suntosh

      The argument that giving money incentivises begging may be true, but what are the other short-term solutions when i) there are not enough jobs for everybody, ii) crimes is also an option, iii) begging per se is not the problem; poverty is, and iv) desperation levels are so high that one would stand all day in the sun or rain being publically humilated.

      Begging is a symptom of in poverty and inequality. Anybody deeply disturbed by the number of beggars in the streets hasn’t seen enough of the country.

    • greatgodpan

      there are just so many of them ….if you took a drive from one side of jhb to the other and gave to every beggar you would be broke……i have made it a rule never to give to beggars at robots or anywhwre else….i don t think you are helping them at the end of the day…….i am much more inclined to help those who make at least some kind of effort to help themselves and i occasionaly will buy a colddrink or something from one of the more entreprenereal (what ever that silly word is) “beggars”……..

    • Momma Cyndi

      Short answer – NO.

      About 5 years ago, we needed a gofer at work and I offered a number of the ‘corner men’ a job (when I say a number, I mean more than 20). Every one of them laughed at the salary of R2,500 a month.

      The only one that I used to go out of my way to support was a lady with her autistic child who used to be on the old Gen Louis Botha Drv in Pta. Adult nappies, vits, food and a bit of cash were hers. I even got family to help too. She has since disappeared and I hope it is because she got help.

    • Genghiz

      Begging is a job like any other… the ones with some skills get my change, the ones who don’t, won’t. A beggar that tries to pull my guilt-strings doesn’t get any, because I don’t feel any guilt (that only applies to upper-middle class english whites). However, a cleverly-written signboard always has me rattling in the cubbyhole for change, and when I’m driving down Jan smuts I always have a tenner handy for that guy that does somersaults at around midnight.

    • Robert

      Yes, we do but of late have been providing food rather than “cash” – but dammit Mr Zuma your “government party” should stop squandering money on frivolous elitist crap, conference after conference after conference to decide who is going to run the place and then doing squat for these unfortunate and desperate citizens – establish a proper, caring social service instead!

      Serve the people not yourselves!

    • robertoX

      I give them something when I feel guilty and have accessible change on me.

      I also tell them to vote for the DA next time if they want to do better.

    • JO

      Greatgodpan is wrong you are doing what God would NEVER do those beggars are human just like us (maybe they have fallen on bad times) an yway God has blessed you with a job so now you be a blessing go others.
      If you do not want to give money buy take-aways and give that way, but GIVE.
      I think Sarah’s project is great!

    • Geodev

      As an American working in South Africa around the turn of the Millenium, I noticed a strange phenomenon conspicuously absent fron any mainstream reporting,opinionating or editorializing mediums. By my observation of daily events which unfolded while driving in Johannesburg and surrounding suburbs, there seemed to be a discernable difference in the methodology employed by white and black “beggars”.
      Blacks who approched my Merc 380SE always had a saleable product to sell or a needed service to render such as a windshield washdown for tips.As such it was quite a risk for these streetcorner entrepreneurs as more often than not, privileged (white) drivers reneged on payment.
      Whites on the other hand redefined the new class of “Beggardom” as they not only seemed to DEMAND payment from passersby but were quite picky as to from whom they would accept monetary assistance…
      STRANGE VISITORS FROM Northcliffe, Kew, Bedfordview, Edenvale, Mondeor, Faire Glen, Fourways, Winchester Hills and other planets…

    • The Critical Cynic

      some get, but most don’t due to the situation perpetuation argument – BUT, we have to keep our humanity in check here. Sometimes, despite the potential that our giving may incentivise someone to remain at a robot, you see someone who needs help now, not tomorrow, and not when poverty and unemployment has been eradicated, but right now if we are to save them from dispair. With every one that I give to I beg from them too, that they will make every effort to overcome their situation and leave the robot and begging in their past.

    • rick baker

      It is most depressing to see the suffering around us and to be helpless to do much about it. One of the reasons we pay taxes is to take care of the less fortunate around us. It is not surprising that the numbers of beggars have spiralled out of control as the government incompetence becomes more and more obvious. In many countries it is illegal to beg because it is not necessary…the state social services take care of desperate people. The only long term answer is to stop voting for politicians who care more about themselves than the people they represent. When you see a beggar you should ask whether Zuma cares…the answer is obvious!

    • greatgodpan

      @ jo
      perhaps i am wrong….neither do i have to be right……but i have my methods……and quite frankly i dont give a damn what god would do….despite my blog name i actually am not a god…neither do i believe in any gods…….if i was a god i think the world would be in for quite a shock……you go ahead and do what you feel is correct…….i dont condemn your actions…..and ill do as i feel is correct…..i still do not believe you are really helping the beggars at t the end of the day….i also dont believe that most beggars have just “fallen on bad times”…some yes but many have taken a lot of sustained effort over many years to reach the condition they are in….alcoholism is evident in many (not all) of the beggers i encounter…

    • greatgodpan

      god has blessed me with a job…..uh no…..i have slogged like a dog all of my life to have the job i have…… no fancy university type…way too expensive for my folks back in the day… was a carpenter if you need an indication …..i started as a courier driver…one of the very most lower positions in my industry …five years on the road days and night for many hours earning peanuts before i got my lucky break…………if you and the young lady who wrote the article can afford to give away
      “R800 SO FAR AND DOUBLE IN THE NEXT WEEK”…..then i seriously think you are way spoilt and earn far too much….and are therefore part of the problem…i suggest you take a decrease in pay and use that money to create a trainee position for one of the would be beggers that will be finishing school this year…….that way you would infact have made a diffrence………..OK im not trying to insult you just giving some food for though on the disparity of wealth… have to ask this question with disparity…..are some paid to little or are some paid way too much?…………

    • Dinks

      Remember, while a beggar makes, or expects to make, money he or she will not even consider looking for a job…

      Beggars also build a society based on entitlement, not on personal effort.

      Those who clean cars or ask for gardening work, without coersion or threat, are making an effort to learn a skill and provide a service. But, come to think about it, when last have you seen someone asking for work prepared to do hard work? When I was a child it was common, and my father commonly gave work too!

    • suntosh

      How would you respond to a beggar with a signboard that read:
      “I could be breaking into your house stealing your stuff, but I’m standing here asking for a handout because unemployment is sky-high” ?

    • DeeGee

      @ suntosh. For the sheer genius of it, you give him/her 5 bucks!

    • greatgodpan

      @ suntosh
      I dont respond well to intimidation and extortion …neither should you.

    • Yaj

      Very good topic .Thought-provoking about an everyday encounter that makes us squirm with discomfort.
      I say give-even if it is just a few cents lying around the seat.
      However let us strive for a universal basic income that would go a long way to restoring the diginty to these pathetic unfortunate people .

      And let us also fight for a more honest money system and expose the systemic fraud of fractional reserve banking which perpetuates debt slavery and reproduces poverty in a systemic way.

    • Jeff


      Look into a mothers eyes
      Tell me what you see
      As her baby sits upon her lap
      Crippled with disease

      Look into the chasm
      That divides the rich and poor
      Greed and obscene possessions
      Always wanting more

      Look into your leaders face
      Now tell me what you see
      Another man with promises
      But no delivery

      Look into a poor mans eyes
      Ask him what do you see
      Another day of hoping
      But continued misery

      Look into the future
      The rich man has no more
      He wished that in his lifetime
      He had given more

      Look into my naked heart
      Ask the question now of me
      Could I have made a difference
      Damn right I did not see

      Why not give at robots ?

    • amandzing


      However, I do have more wire whatsits, doo-dads, doohickeys and whatchamacallits than I have space for, five or six pairs of sunglasses, two reflective jackets, and more.

      Watch the transformation of a beggar here:—

      and false beggars?

    • Tash Suchecki

      This is such an awesome conversation, because it’s so relevant to all of us, and it brings up a number of interesting points. In response to that, here’s my take:
      – I don’t give cash. Partly because I can’t afford to give to everyone and I can’t figure out how to choose who gets and who doesn’t. And partly because, while I have no place telling a homeless person how to spend their money, not giving cash avoids the “he’ll just spend it on alcohol” argument
      – I don’t ignore beggars. I smile and shrug if I have nothing, and 9 times out of 10, they really appreciate just being treated as a human. Often, I get a friendly fistpump through the window for apologizing that I have nothing to give. It’s called humanity.
      – I buy pretzels, two-minute noodles, and little biscuit packets in bulk, and pass out one to each guy at a robot. I’ve met some really cool people, who smile, wave and jump as I drive past. Those few make my day, and suddenly I’m getting, not giving.

    • Tash Suchecki

      Oh, and while I understand that positive reinforcement encourages behavior (giving to beggars gives them an incentive to beg), we also live in a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. At 25%, one in every four South Africans is actively searching yet unable to find work. Begging is not laziness, its a survival tactic.

    • LaShaniqua

      Let’s say you gave a beggar a million rand – would that stop him from begging, or just make it more likely that he’d continue to do it instead of getting a real job that produces value in society, in the hopes of finding another sucker? When word got out about his big score (as it always does) would you lure hundreds of young kids into a begging lifestyle instead of doing the hard work of staying in school or getting a job? Beggars are there for a reason – to play on the guilt of productive Whites. If you didn’t give them anything you’d actually be helping the black community. Stop it, now. You’re not helping, you’re hurting. Get over your guilt and stop being played. You are being conned by these scumbags, and they laugh at you over over every rand they receive.

    • Ndingumlungu/ndithetha kancinci…

      Yes. I give money to beggars, I buy The Big Issue (two or three copies; it is actually a v cool read), I occasionally buy a hungry-looking someone something; I have my ‘favorites’ (eghh??!), and my ‘regulars’, and the ones I yell at and run away from. I leave piles of r5s sometimes in a strange place, and sometimes I get mad, and I have been stalked (ha? yessss) by a small HIV positive beggar in a most efficient wheelchair, and I have sent beggar’s kids to school, and refused to answer the front-door. It’s great. It’s real. This is exactly where I –bizarrely – am (at the moment) in our crazy, wild country which bears no relation to a rainbow whatsover: I have some resources (how did that happen? If you say ‘privilege,” you would be wrong wrong wrong. ). Other people need much of what I have. They need it badly. So off we go – hustling, talking, joking, abandoning, helping, yelling, and no, I don’t get to ‘drive way,” I am right back, the next minute and so is he, she, them, my country-allies.