Simon Howell
Simon Howell

Confronting poverty

This festive season I spent a few weeks in a reasonably affluent town in the Western Cape. This in itself is unremarkable. However on returning to the Eastern Cape, and Grahamstown specifically, the contrast between that wealth and the grinding poverty of this town became all the more stark and all the more desperate. One might say that without contrast one can become immune to poverty’s effects, however problematic that is. Indeed, it is not simply that there is an inordinate amount of poor people in Grahamstown, or that they are highly visible and destitute. The poverty that exists here seems and feels of a different kind — it is a poverty that covers human bodies like an ailment, a disease that sucks from innocent people their lifeblood. It is not only their pasts and their futures that are corrupted, but their lives and presence, their very being.

The political philosopher in me would like to argue that we might be able to place the blame for this blight on some institution, some person, indeed some idea that might act as a scapegoat for a violence which is silent and yet all pervasive. And yet I cannot, indeed we cannot. Perhaps I am becoming cynical in my old age — and while I would love to seek out come causal narrative through which we might explain the extreme poverty in the Eastern Cape — I can’t help but think that this poverty, this violence, is beyond the power of just words. What is required is action; real, palpable change. This change is probably not going to come from a council in which amid all of this poverty the mayor still feels the need to drive (at least last time I checked) a BMW X5 (list price: about half a million rand depending on the extras). Nor is it to come (and I am guilty of this) from those sitting in a comfortable office writing about poverty from a Macintosh computer (list price: about R15 000 depending on the model).

This is not to say that there is not a need to write, debate, critique and hound those in power to make meaningful change. But this intellectual project must be bolstered and amplified by real and direct interventions in the communities within which we live and work. What I am suggesting then is an epistemological shift in the way in which we think and talk about poverty in South Africa, a shift that rejuvenates the power of the “how” rather than constantly focussing on the “why”. I cannot help but think, in other words, that we South Africans spend an inordinate amount of energy blaming each other for our problems rather than seeking out solutions to the problems that we can solve.

In my attempts to at least begin to live by these words, however, I immediately encountered a problem — I wanted to make the maximum amount of difference to the maximum amount of people in the shortest amount of time. I had, perversely, adopted the very logic of capitalism in my attempts to make a difference in the lives of those who were casualties of the self-same system. Moreover, and in the past, I have found that the difference people make is judged in terms of impact, in terms of “quantity” — we give awards to those who change whole communities, while ignoring those who have helped just a few people in some special way. This mindset, in my mind, does a disservice to the logic of attempting to make changes, however small, in one’s own local community.

While I am not attempting to make new resolutions in the New Year, I think the time has come to turn our critical gazes upon ourselves, and begin to ask the questions that we know we will not like. What have we done? How have we helped? Have we, in whatever way we can, at least attempted to make a difference in another human being’s life? The answers to these questions are difficult, but necessary. Indeed, I am beginning to think that it is only when we turn this critical lens upon ourselves that we can begin to realise just how hard it is going to be to change this country, and to change ourselves, in a manner that is substantive, real, and necessary.

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    • john patson

      Oh come on lad, have you not realised that the only difference between Grahamstown and your Western Cape town is that in Grahamstown the township is not built on the other side of the hill?
      As for wanting to get involved look around you. Grahamstown has had for years, even when going into the townships was illegal for whites, plenty of charities providing direct help to the poor, not all church related either.
      All dismissed as liberal guilt by the radical students who think the poor will rather read Marxist newspapers, but there you go.
      I advise you to get involved with these mainly while, English speaking, middle-class women led charities and do some good using years of accumulated experience as to what help works, and what does not.

    • ntozakhona


      What South Africa needs is more of developental activism than charity. A development paradigm would ensure that there is a tranfer of skills and assistance with the mobilisation of social and private capital to establish progammes and enterprises capable of self sustenance.

      My experience in SMME development teaches that once people know what you do they cease depending on anyone and innovate around own challenges.

      The biggest challenge is that the private sector is in the main refusing to come to the party. If for example big companies were to also purchase SABS approved products from small concerns a significant reduction in equality would be realised.

    • Facts People

      The R500K BMW of today has the technology that will in future be available for R10K. The rich are subsidising the poor of the future by paying the skimming price in exchange for status.

      If we had a system whereby the rich had loads of spouses and kids and the poor few, redistribution of wealth would happen much faster. That would be a cool black thing to adopt widely. Not with people with access to the government trough though ! Redistribute your own money to your family, not everyone elses’.

    • alex weir – poverty in rsa – #40percentmineralroyalties + #fraudproofvoting + g2p payments the solution

    • Tofolux

      @Simon, my diagnosis firstly to you and others is that you now suffer from self induced amnesia. This amnesia has become so omnipotent amongst some of us, it seems to be on the same level as the forgetfulness of the reality of an apartheid govt. Firstly Simon, Western Cape enjoyed economic priviledges one, because it was marketed as a major tourist attraction by the previous govt, two, Parliament resided in that city three, it was a farmers paradise ie wine, fruit etc. Secondly SImon you have conveniently forgotten the number of provinces we had during apartheid. If Cape Town was an economic hub because of the ports etc why do you think Grahamstown suffered? It is a given that more infrastructure and resources was given to WCape. Why do you think DA claims it is the best run city? It is simply because they have inherited ALL these resources and infrastructure. Grahamstown does not have the background of all these resources or infrastructure. Now given that background could you possibly reput your debate, using proper facts?

    • george orwell

      john patson wrote: “get involved with mainly while, English speaking, middle-class women led charities and do some good “.

      Fair enough and good as far as it goes, but this is the neo-liberal model – using the band aid of middle-class charities to salve your conscience about grinding poverty and institutionalised economic disparity.

      If you scratch a neo-liberals hard you often find they’re really fascists in cardigans and pearls. ie. they will help in terms of charity, but don’t ask them to re-think capitalism, which actually REQUIRES an impoverished, toilet-cleaner, rubbish-collecter worker class in order to continue.

    • Yaj

      The cause of poverty is systemic and it is our debt-based money system of fractional reserve banking and compound interest. Change this through monetary reform to a 100% reserve banking system and debt-free social credit and we eliminate the systemic cause of poverty and extreme inequality.
      We can also start with the issue of universal basic income and the use of public banks -state and community owned.

      We all need to understand that 97% of our money supply is created from thin air when our private banking cartel issue loans. Because interest is always owed on the principal thus created , there is always a scarcity of the circulating medium of exchange (money) , hence the competition and survival of the fittest-which essentially the rich (and therefore powerful) become richer and the poor (the weaker or less powerful) become poorer.

      The world -our planet and its people is in dire need of monetary reform- to prevent the exponential growth debt money system causing an ecological disaster.

    • Webcafe

      From Bloemfontein. I cry for families dependant on the child support grant as the only source of income. People who go for days without a meal. i have my matric certificate not disabled and willing to do any kind of work. i am able to learn. I have a daughter, wife and together me and my wife (and her two brothers) live in a four roomed house of her deceased parents. We’re unemployed, my parents are also deceased. We depend on the child support grant to our daughter provided by the government. My wife is not healthy she was also a recipient of a social security grant and her health condition deteriorates bad when she’s hungry. Unfortunately her reapplication has not been successful as a house became without food and electricity and no income as the cost of life continued to increase. It has been months struggle no jobs, no food to eat. I’ve applied for so many jobs and nothing seem to change. I call to all who hears to help me or my wife put some food on the table (we’re dying) please anyone willing to assist please call me on 073 545 0728, What kind of man am i who die of hunger with all his family, what kind of man have i become who cannot provide for his family please help any job.

    • http://n/a Manqoba

      The Direct Interlectual Project and Direct Interventions: The Fundamental Systems.

      Thank you Mr. S. Howell, for raising this issue in public. People used to talk about it as if it is something that whould be awaited for and who must start acting on its invisibIity.

      This demise is already haunting ourpeople and almost awaiting our nations like an agaped hungry lion, while our learders are treating it as a celebratory phenaminon. One will only be wondering about the deliberations at political commomarations and Heritage celebrations as if it is a thing of the past thereafter no more.

      The reality of addressing such issues of importance lies with our Situational Leadership of which our community is tetrribly lacking. At certain times when the national leaders are to address the public such matters are minimally so addressed because it is the local leadership responsibilty.
      I really don’t know wether is a tedency of an ideological perspectives set aside by individual organizations for their common and specific gains to attract more constituency during electoral canvass or not. Our political leadership expressed themselves more profoundly but differently during the elections than at community general mass meetings.
      In support of your point, Simon, Direct Interlectual Project and Direct Interventions should be the pillars of their deliberations as well as in their public galaries to address the fundamentals of poverty aliviation in our Country, South Africa and the…

    • Momma Cyndi

      I wonder why poverty has so many different faces? If you look at the poor people of Lao, Brazil, Bangladesh, Liberia and South Africa, it is all so very differently manifest. Is it an attitude towards the cards they are dealt or a social defining of poverty?

    • Thapelo

      I can’t help but feel that the “we” in your questions is inadvertently you and the “few others”.