Originally published 19 June 2012
Part I of our series Begging for Change
I was at an intersection recently, observing a common South African scene. It was a blazing hot Durban day. The kind of heat that shimmers on the concrete. A hoard of sun-beaten beggars did the rounds. Some sprawled on the side of the road like war victims. And I really saw them for the first time in a long time. The most degraded citizens of Poison City.
Durban has some famous beggars. There’s the Indian fellow on the corner of Old Fort and NMR – The Praying Mantis. He marches between traffic with his arms and face turned skyward in a holy salutation, imploring almighty God for salvation. There’s the army of Mr Bins who collect your rubbish from your car in exchange for a buck or two. There’s the talkers, the wordsmiths, the salesman of sympathy. There is a new generation of beggars in Morningside that have been twisted and bent by some mysterious disease causing them to hop-skip their way through traffic like Quasimodos of the street corner. And the sign-writers of course, who summarise their poverty in a few emotive phrases. The message is always the same: No food. No Money. No Job. No Love.
In the name of research I went and stood at the robots at the bottom of my road for an hour armed with a pen and pad, and asked drivers if they give money to beggars at robots and why.
The first guy thought I was begging: “I got no money, we going to site,” he says. I was then waved off by three more cars with windows up, eyes dead ahead. I quickly learned to only hit open windows and to speak real quick cos the robot only gives you 10 seconds. The responses were predictable.
“No, cos I work why can’t they?” – IT specialist in a white Honda with doef doef thumping and frosted tips quivering.
“No, not a chance. People who give them money keep them here. They make more money begging than working.” – Muslim shop owner in a sparkling beamer, with a kid on his lap, a great big beard and a cigarette smouldering.
“No, you not allowed to. It’s illegal, it’s a bylaw.” – A geeky looking guy with spectacles and ears that stuck out.
“No way,” with a disgusted look on face, “if you give them money they just go and buy some weed and some drugs.” – Glamorous black girl in sunnies and lip gloss.
But worst of all…
“No bru they must vaai and fucking work. If they cant work they must bring me their wife and I’ll poke her!” – Gangster-looking taxi driver with golden teeth.
Jeepers fuck I thought. It’s a hard life being a beggar. After nearly an hour I managed to get a ‘yes’ with an explanation.
“Sometimes,” said the friendly black professional in his 30s. “Because you feel sorry for them… and if you give them change maybe they can buy some food.” Then he looked at me quizzically. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Writing a story,” I answered.
“Are you gonna help them?” he asked putting me on the spot. Maybe. Maybe not I guess.
*Read part 2 here.
**All images © Samora Chapman.