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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.