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.