(Disclaimer: this was written based entirely on my own personal experience. If I have any facts wrong, please let me know. )
I recently read in a Dutch newspaper that there are 253 registered beggars in Amsterdam. Several things about this statement shocked me.
253 is ridiculously little. I don’t think any city in South Africa has so few beggars, even as a percentage of population (though I have not checked the figures –there may not even be any figures).
The fact that beggars are registered and that begging is in fact outlawed (except, I suppose for these registered beggars) seems almost monstrous when you come from a country where almost every traffic light in every major city has children below the age of ten asking you for some coins. To deny so many people this form of income because it is a nuisance is something I cannot even countenance.
There are too many beggars to register in South Africa and there are certainly too many people who live off begging in order to make it illegal (that said, I have not checked our laws, but I have never heard of anyone being arrested for begging). There are the children that I have mentioned, but many grown men and women too, mostly black. Increasingly, you also find white people with cardboard placards asking for help because they have no job. I make this distinction between South Africa is still a very polarised country. The white are rich, and except for a handful of elites, the black are poor.
Of course, there are naturally people who take chances, who essentially con others via begging. (I have been conned into giving money to someone who supposedly needed it to catch a bus or a train, only to spot them in an another location not long afterward asking for the same thing.) One can argue that those children on SA street corners are being misused. They often are, I think. The Netherlands has the luxury to control its beggar population. South Africa does not. It is an administrative and man-power intensive task that our government and police force cannot handle. Nor is it one they should handle. There are far more important things to do.
Ideally, I think, all “charitable” money would be channelled via organisations that could oversee the use of that money. I don’t know the state of the NGO space in South Africa, but I suspect it can’t solve all the problems. And a request for a donation from an NGO will never be quite as persuasive as a cupped hand in your face.
In a country as divided as South Africa perhaps the rich need permanent reminders of their good fortune. Perhaps all it leads to is a habit of apathy. But one can be held accountable for apathy, not ignorance. I would like to see a day where South Africa is no longer has beggars, where it can have the luxury of outlawing such distasteful things. I do not think I will live long enough (and I plan to live a very very long time).
I have often been one of those apathetic rich people (rich compared to most South Africans, that is). This little article in a Dutch newspaper has made me question my actions, and, importantly, my inaction.
I am reminded of a quote by Henry Ford:
Capital punishment is as fundamentally wrong as a cure for crime as charity is wrong as a cure for poverty.
I don’t believe that giving to beggars solves the problem of poverty. (It’s an easy way to salve your conscience, perhaps). But when you walk past that beggar, when you turn that blind eye, it is an opportunity to evaluate your life, to ask yourself, have you contributed to a world in which begging would no longer be necessary? For me, the answer, too often is an accusatory “no.”