I was out doing my irregular early morning jog when I was stopped by a lean and hungry-looking man. My street-wise eyes screened him up and down as he walked in my opposite direction. The distance between us closed and in no time we were face to face.
What I picked up was the shabby clothes, the unwashed face, the unbrushed teeth, the torn shoes and dirty looking pants and T-shirt. He walked not as a man, in joy, confidence, triumph and freedom. Instead, there was a slow-motion step, sagging shoulders and self-pity. This was an African man with a great burden on his soul.
Before I could grunt a greeting and pass, he motioned me to stop. I knew why. The man was looking for money, food or some Christmas box. He asked if he “could do anything for me, including gardening, cleaning or painting your garage. Or give me some Xmas box.” I told him that I had no need for that service or a Christmas box.
This was just the beginning.
Predictably, his words then shot straight into my heart. He asked me for bread.
“I have no eaten for days and it is most likely that I will go to bed hungry, again, tonight,” he told me.
I immediately changed the subject and asked him where he came from. He spoke Xhosa and said he was from Lady Frere in the Eastern Cape and had come to Jozi to seek his fortune. But things did not turn out the way he had planned.
“Life is brutal, again, to we the poor this Christmas,” he told me.
I looked at him. Momentarily, I was two-minded and did not know what to say or do. So, I told him I lived 10km away, which is true, and thus it would not be possible. Desperation jumped into his eyes. He was willing to come with me to wait at the gate. I said “sorry” and wished him good luck. His eyes glistened with tears.
Every day on my early morning run I am confronted by African men, women and sometimes children who are poor, unemployed, desperate and marginalised. I have watched the security guards who wait for taxis at 5.30am. I think if they were not provided with their uniforms they would be dressed in shabby clothes.
It is the same with the garage petrol attendants that offer me water, greetings and smiles at that ungodly hour. You don’t have to mention the car wash workers, domestic helpers, supermarket cashiers, office cleaners, waiters, construction workers and other retail shop assistants. These are the working poor. Their meagre wages cannot afford them a decent meal that would include turkey for a special festive meal. In fact, they can’t even afford to buy lunch at the malls they work in.
The working poor just get paid enough for them to catch a taxi, walk long distances to slog their lives for not more than R2 000 a month. the lucky ones get R5 000. But the government has just passed legislation that a domestic worker should be paid a minimum wage of about R2 100 a month. I wonder how many get paid that amount. Anyway …
As I continue on my early morning run, I greet the young men on their way to the construction site of “the biggest mall in Africa”, at Waterfall in Midrand. Some of them whisper an answer while others just grunt or give me a blank stare. Surely, these men can do better than not to appreciate my Ubuntu greeting. But I know they have more important things on their mind than pay attention to a man who is prancing around in the road in the morning.
There are more than 7 million African people who are unemployed in this country. In fact, the majority are destined to be unemployment statistics or part of the working poor. You will know that jobs are shrinking because companies would rather relocate elsewhere than pay a living wage. If not, they are introducing machines to take over their jobs.
And who will save these men and women because if you are a qualified professional like me and want to survive you must become part of the economic system that is against the interests of African people in this country. In fact, the lucky ones who have escaped the rural areas and brutal township upbringing have to become part of the problem they fought against. Or else the system roots you out when you talk about radical economic transformation.
Well, I have brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, neighbours and childhood friends who are poor, marginalised and condemned to be part of the working poor in my own world. I know the life of these people who have the courage to wake up at 5am — when I go out jogging — to be volunteer slaves in the modern economy. What intrigues me is that they are full of enthusiasm and hope. For what, less than R2 000 a month.
Well, some of my nephews are flocking to join any party that promises the land of milk and honey, including Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. There is a lot of radical talk when we are together taking stock of the last 20 years of democracy and freedom. It is depressing talk that tells of the gathering clouds of darkness on what Nelson Mandela had tried to achieve. It is mostly about land ownership, economic control and corruption.
I hope it is not just slogans and rhetoric that “economic freedom will happen” in their lifetime. That was Mandela’s dream, too, as a young man. When I was much younger in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was talk of liberation. It would seem the goalposts have shifted now. From political liberation it will be economic freedom. But that too will not be the end, right? What next? I guess it will be personal spiritual fulfilment, whatever that is. Everybody wants inner peace.
Well, the cynical townships have done their perfect work on me. Yet the bitterness and anger at the lack of economic justice and social equality keeps me awake at night. The running is to get it out of my system more than attempts at weight control. For how does it feel to go out on an early morning run and the first people you see are the “slaves”?
As I walk away from the Xhosa man from Lady Frere, I know that at the next corner there will be another man with the same story — of African men, women and children who have been reduced to beggars in one of the richest countries on the African continent and in the world. As they say, Africa is rich but Africans are poor.
As I turned the corner, I saw yet another man crossing the road to come to me. Well, I will tell this one that next year marks the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter. There are some celebrations to look forward to. But surely he will not eat that. No Christmas box for my fellow countrymen.