Eyes that once turned green with envy now turn jaundiced at the flaunting of wealth in an increasingly superficial consumer society; the way success is measured by the sports car you drive and your designer sunglasses, loft apartment and chic choice of pretentious restaurant or coolest possible bar.

South African urbanites are visiting New York and coming back to Manhattanify and Loftivate the Mother City, all Number-on-Long and Name-on-Fourth, without a thought that we might have cultures and traditions of our own with no need to borrow pseudo-coolth from across the sea.

And then I drive through the winelands and pass a trio of old stone labourers’ cottages far from the main farmhouse, colourful washing flapping desultorily in the brewing Southeaster, and I think, now there’s a life you can’t buy. Sure, I know, there is a tough life to be lived to gain that cottage, but look at the setting. If I have to be born into that community in a future life, please may it be to a family of farm labourers. At least you get a view and a piece of somebody else’s fertile ground to live on.

And here’s me, now, in this small town I call home, and most of the people around me presume that I am rich. Which I am, but not in the way they might think. Because I have lived in this small town for most of two years, because I came here and turned a derelict house into a restaurant, there is only one possible solution: the man must be stinking in the stuff.

And how do you respond to the proffered hand, the gimme-gimme appendage and the stone-cold pleading eye, something behind the iris seemingly knowing that you’re going to say no? Just like all of the boere white men have said no every day, every week, month, year for so, so long. How do you say, I’m not like them, but I’m still not giving you money.

I inevitably feel like a Scrooge sending countless Tiny Tims home to cry in an armchair before the hearth on Christmas Eve. Except that they don’t have armchairs, many of these people, and the luxury of a fireplace even in this reaper-grim climate is incomprehensible.

The truth, I suppose, is that everything is relative, as Einstein liked to say. To a man sleeping on a De Waal Park bench, the man walking his dog can only be comparatively rich, whether he is a Beemer-driving CEO or a student scrounging a living from waiting tables.

And how do you explain to the indigent man, his eyes measuring your supposed wealth, that even many of the people in the fearsome 4x4s who come to stay in the fine guest houses owe more to the bank than to their own good fortune, and that to own a home generally means to have a lifelong debt to the same or another bank?

Oddly, in one small way I have become richer than many of the flashy-car drivers on the roads, having bought in cash a relatively modest R80 000 French car last year rather than have a mammoth debt and a fancier vehicle. Then again, it’s only an R80 000 deposit on something better down the line, minus deterioration and deflation, so they will all catch up and overtake me one of these days, flashing their lights to force me into the slow lane. I shall just turn my music up and think of the time in my life of which the strains remind me, for that is how I would rather count my riches: in life, lived and living.

And there before me is this raggedy man who never bothered to learn to drive, because what’s the point? He’s never going to afford a new car. He’s never going to leave this small town. He’s going to drink himself to death here, and an early grave it will be. Because that is the way of towns such as this. And if you think this dorp is unique, take a drive to the hundreds of small towns that litter the country. Welcome to small-town South Africa, where the poor are desperate and resigned to their bad fortune.

There is only one way out and I will tell it to any young person in any of these towns who is prepared to listen. Pack a suitcase with the few belongings you have, get on the road and start walking, thumb out. Get away from here, get to a city and fight and claw your way into a life, because a city has an economy and a place like this has only a graveyard. Rich or poor, in a city you have a shot at being somebody and achieving something. Which doesn’t mean you might not end up on the street, but at least you’ll have a chance.

But to stay here is to get sucked into the cauldron. And swirling in it, the stench of unwashed bodies, the liver-poisoning vaalwyn that the local bottle stores leech on to these people even knowing how it kills them, and all the litter strewn daily on these streets by people who haven’t even been taught something as basic as using the bloody garbage bins. And decaying among this putrefied mass, the receipts of the filthy moneylenders who with false smiles hand cash to the world’s poorest people, and the encumbrance of debt and interest that goes with it.

I will take the recalcitrant young man who tells me he cannot leave this dump by the slim brown hand and lead him to the graveyard, where on one side is a field of rows of neatly tended graves with shining slabs in granite and marble proudly naming the dead white people who lived such rich and noble lives in sight of my young man and his family, ever ignoring the outstretched hand, just as I do now.

Then I shall turn him around to face the other half of the graveyard, where unkempt mounds are topped with cheap pink and yellow plastic flowers and small makeshift wooden crosses on which, in pen or koki, is scrawled the name of the late mother or father or sibling or aunt or uncle who was laid to rest here only last week, or the week before that. And just beyond, the heads, peeping above the surface, of gravediggers preparing the path to infinity for somebody yet to arrive this Saturday. For this, other than the road out of town with your thumb stuck out, is the only way out of here.

But let’s move in a little closer to one or two of these graves, with perhaps a notebook and pen at the ready. For, if you walk around to the other side, you’ll be able to write down the cellphone number of the undertaker, who has taken the trouble to advertise his facilities on the reverse of the tiny cross to make it easier for the next few bereaved families to know who to call to fix the funeral arrangements.

And behind my young man, the dust falls softly on the gravestones of those who once were the white masters, and whose legacy yet plagues these families. Who by giving their workers a little stone house somewhere on the farm, in which to live and bear children, ensured that there would be generations of workers who owned nothing and therefore would stay and be loyal workers for new generations; who never in many generations thought to pay these workers anything that could afford them even the cheapest of new garments, yet who so kindly handed them their own old clothes, with beaming, patronising smiles and the expectation of gratitude; who, to moisten the dry-as-bone lives of people enslaved to this dusty soil as surely as if they had been bought and chained, oiled them roundly with their daily dop to take their minds off, well, anything that might make them actually think.

Think that maybe there’s something better than this. An education, a course in something or other, a visit to the sea, an answer to the riddle of what it might be like beyond that koppie over there, the one that you’ve seen every day of your life. A life without servitude, without being treated as something less than the human being you know yourself to be. Or don’t. Because long ago, in an earlier generation, any memory of self-worth was driven out.

And I stand in these dusty streets and I rail, privately, against the way these indigent people behave, how they are often their own worst enemy, because their white former masters see them loaf and slope and curse and litter and generally show painfully little sign of even trying to better themselves or their lot. And you have to forgive them because what history has perpetuated here is so total that it will take a miracle greater than the new South Africa even to begin to fix it.

And therein lies the rub, because while urban South Africa congratulates itself on how far we have all come from the bad old days of apartheid, it is in these small towns that the truth can be seen of the enormity of the change that must come if these people are to turn a corner into a new future as the rest of us have done.

Then in the street one day will be a small boy, barely five or six, and his hand will be out, and the big white man from the fancy restaurant will say to him, no, you must earn your way in life, you must not beg. For if I do not try to teach him this simple life lesson, who will? Surely not some fool who, to salve his rich white conscience, gives him a few coins, encouraging him to do the same, and then again, until it becomes a habit of life, to ask and be given rather than to earn and receive. It is no small lesson.

And me, now, standing in the dusty street dismissing this man’s outstretched hand, thinking, jeez, if you knew what rich really looked like … it ain’t me, dude, to misquote Dylan. But to this man, this man with not even a bank account, as there sure as hell is nothing to put into it, I am that slick, overdressed, too-much-moneyed twat that I see behind so many overpriced wheels.

But my hand remains in my pocket, and I say in even tones that I will not give him money because he must earn his money, and could he please teach his son not to ask for something for nothing, for his son deserves a life, not a mere indebted existence.

For once upon a time, a long time ago, I was a small boy. And I had nothing, so that when my classmates invited me out to go to the movies with them, I said sorry, but I can’t go, and so I was thought stand-offish and found it hard to make friends. But one day, I said yes, that would be great, and we were to meet at the old Monte Carlo moviehouse on the Cape Town Foreshore. I arrived a little early, to give myself time to solve this little problem of not having the money for the ticket.

And there was this lady, just passing by, and I swallowed a breath bigger than my juvenile frame and went up to her. “Sorry, lady, but could I have 20 cents, please, to see a movie?”

Boy, did I get a lecture. Shamefaced, I slunk away. When I looked around again, she was a few paces further along the pavement, and a little coloured boy was standing in front of her, hand out. She opened her purse, gave him a coin and walked on, loping off towards the railway station as the boy sauntered past me. I caught his eye, and he furtively caught mine. He slowed and made as if to put his hand out, then seemed to think better of it. Maybe he caught a look in my eye that said, “No.” There was something strange about his eyes. They seemed oddly deep-set, as if he might be a great worrier, or suffered from migraines.

I thought about the woman’s contradictory responses to two requests for money. The white boy would manage, somehow, but better give this supposedly lesser individual a bob or two or the poor bastard will starve. That night, lying in bed trying to get off to sleep, assimilating the day’s events, I resolved never again to ask for something for nothing, but to find a way to earn it or do without.

Late one December a few years ago, shortly after the turn of the millennium, I was approached on Greenmarket Square by a man with a little boy in hand. The man was wizened and he walked with the gait of one with many burdens to carry. Though the father was shabbily attired, the boy was dressed in a clean pair of blue jeans, a nice T-shirt and, on his head, a backwards baseball cap with a Nike tick. He looked healthy and well-fed.

“A bob or two for the boy, my friend,” the man said to me.

I was torn. He wasn’t begging for himself, or was he? Would he hand the kid back to his mother and head for the liquor store? Or would he put it towards the boy’s well-being? There seemed evidence to suggest the boy was cared for.

“Don’t worry, sir, I long ago stopped begging for myself; it’s all for the boy now. I’ve learnt my lesson.”

There was something in those deep-set eyes that made me think he might be telling the truth.

I never saw the movie, by the way.

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Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman is a journalist, budding playwright and sometime chef. He's written two plays, An Influence of Ghosts and Blue Train Coming, and back in the day wrote loads of songs. He paints a bit in watercolours...

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