Posts Tagged charity
In South Africa we have an interesting phenomenon: car guards. These are people who stand in parking lots and parking spaces generally, typically wearing a neon vest, “looking after” your car. Typically they receive (at least part of their) income as donations from the motorists whose cars they have kept safe. I have encountered car guards for years and I realised I actually know little about them.
I suspect international readers may find this concept hard to understand and I refer you to this comical video by a South African comedy duo. Despite the comedic element, the portrayal is fairly accurate. As in this video, car guards are almost always male, but unlike in the video, they are also almost always black.
Many car guards are hired by the owners of the premises. I am not sure of how much protection they actually provide. I have never heard of a car guard actually stopping or attempting to stop a theft. That does not mean, however, that car guards do not prevent attempts – like visible policing they may make thefts less likely. For the most part, however, their role seems to be to help motorists get into and out of tricky parking spots. These men are not security guards – they are not armed and I suspect most are not trained to deal with proper criminals.
Many “car guards”, I suspect, take advantage of the fact that anyone with a neon vest has a legitimate claim as guarding any otherwise unattended parking facility. Car guards have become so ingrained in daily lives that we hardly even think about paying them. Much like providing a tip to a waitron, it has been customary and we feel guilty if we shirk this duty.
In so far as car guards are not actually providing a useful service, they effectively represent a form of charity, a means of creating employment not unlike asking people to dig holes and fill them up again. This is probably not entirely fair and we must consider that South Africa sits with a glut of unskilled labour that is not being put to productive use (our youth unemployment rate is notoriously high). Car guards represent one way of giving an income, one that is earned, at least in some measure, to a portion of our unskilled labour force.
The question of whether this is good or bad is moot. It is certainly better than having a larger supply of beggars. The fact that this country has no better way of employing much of its population is the problem. It’s also probably true that the South African public has come to expect car guards: we want them there.
I leave you with some questions. If you have something to say about any of them, please leave a comment:
- Do you know of any research on whether car guards do reduce car thefts?
- Do you feel safer with a car guard nearby?
- Have you heard of a car guard preventing a theft?
- How do you feel about paying car guards?
- Do you think there are more “productive” means employing a larger part of our population?
It occurred to me after seeing the trailer for Elysium, the new film by the director of District 9, that real life is perhaps not so very different from the situation described there. District 9 portrayed South Africa past. Elysium portrays the world as it is now.
The setting is so ridiculous, so Sci-Fi that it doesn’t immediately register. But the premise is essentially that the divide between rich and poor is enormous and unfair and that the poor are being hindered from advancing.
I know little of immigration laws, but it seems to me that it is quite hard to move from one impoverished country to another more prosperous one. And even then it is hard to be treated on equal terms with the rest of the country’s inhabitants. Much harder still (practically impossible in fact) is breaking out of the poverty of generations of inadequate education, which you will inevitably pass on to your children.
In the Elysium trailer there is some machine that removes minor ailments. It seems unbelievable that those in Elysium should have access to this, but the people on Earth are dying (presumably in pollution, with lack of food, medical treatment, etc.). If you are a middle-class South African or a resident of a first world country, you might not realise how ridiculously unequal the real world actually is. I had my teeth straightened with braces at a great cost to my medical aid when I was in my teens. It now seems to me almost monstrous to have been able to get such a cosmetic procedure when in my own country there are people with no access to clean water. How different is this from the futuristic machine in Elysium?
Of course, I think this is the point the movie is trying to make. We live in a world divided. If you get born into the right home in the right country or the right area you grow up with privilege. But a very large portion of this world is denied even the most basic human needs. We may not have separated ourselves from these people with as much clarity as putting ourselves in a space station, but we are separated from them nonetheless. A part of this separation is geographical (country and neighbourhood), a part of it is in structures (barb-wire fences around our homes), but mostly it is in our minds. We do not just absolve ourselves of guilt: we hardly recognise the need to do so.
I am not going to advocate giving away masses of wealth to the poor or to the poorest nations. Charity is not the solution. But I think we need to recognise we do not live in a cosy world and we need to figure out what to do about that. I hardly have any answers.
(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.”