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I'm Begging You

I’m Begging You

by Kim Harrisberg / 24.06.2013

These are some things I now know about begging:

1. The white paint on the tar used to mark lanes and stop streets is an unexpected solace for the bare foot on a hot day.

2. It is remarkably easy to lip-read exactly what drivers think about you and wish to share with their passengers.

3. Eye-contact becomes an instant litmus test for those who care to acknowledge your humiliation, and those who don’t.

One Saturday afternoon, I slip on the most oversized jersey I can find and a pair of shorts that are fraying at the ends. I take off my shoes. I wrap a bandage around my leg and use mercurochrome to make it look as if a wound is seeping through the bandage. I scoop up a handful of dirt and rub it against my legs, and more on my face. I take permanent marker and smear it under my eye and over my bottom lip. From a distance this looks like light bruising.

I then tear off the bottom of a cardboard box, which housed my new takkies the week before, and write: ‘Pleas [sic] help. God Bless’.

I walk outside my friend’s complex, nodding at the staring security guards who seem to be wondering how this skollie got past them in the first place. I choose a robot on Main road, Claremont, which is cursed by drivers for its unnecessarily long wait.

Holding up my sign, I make sure I am standing directly in between the two lanes. I attempt to strike the balance between being noticed and not being an obstacle in the road.

The first car approaches. When the driver is about 50 metres away, she spots me, and I can almost hear the alarm bells ringing in her head. She stops much further than is necessary from the robot and looks straight ahead.

My first reaction is to burst out laughing. Can’t she see I just changed my outfit and smeared some dirt across my face? I have to grind my teeth to stop the smile that threatens to leap across the negative space between her and me. She drives off, without having made eye contact once. She is the first of many to react this way.

After thirty minutes, my palm is not the only one outstretched and pleading. Nasif Ely has arrived. He is patrolling the lane directly next to me and territorial uncertainty rushes over me.

“Must I leave?” I ask, attempting to muffle my accent in case I give something away.

“No, no. This is a free country. And you are my sister,” replies Nasif. I feel a pang of camaraderie. Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of his blind kindness with the dehumanising disdain of the passing drivers.

Of course, trained eyes can see that this beggar is ill-experienced. The questions rush forward like a torrent.

“Where is your home? Are you on drugs? Are you hungry?” 
He points to my mock bruises. “Who did that to you?”

I mumble a story about being kicked out by my mother, hiding why I am truly here: to experience a fleeting glimpse into what is Nasif’s daily life. Within moments, Nasif is unbuttoning his dirtied shirt and pointing to raw wounds, shining scars and swollen lumps. Relics of the street life colour his 15-year-old body.

“Go home,” says Nasif insistently. “Mothers are always right. I never had a mother. I wish I had a mother to go home to.” Within seconds he is weeping, his child-like cry a reminder of his age.

He walks to the pavement, sits down, and puts his head between his hands. His bony body convulses with sobs as drivers look on through their tinted windows.

Nasif was born on the streets, so he says. At the age of 11, he was arrested: “wrongly accused of house-breaking”. He spent 4 years in Pollsmoor juvenile prison where he was taught to read and write for the first time. One month ago, he was put back on the streets. But Stefano Mairorano, a resident in the area, confirms he has seen him here intermittently for the past year.

I shuffle over to another robot, allowing Nasif his space.

I'm Begging You

Within moments, a Polo races towards the robot, music pumping through the open windows. The laughter of the four men in the car gets louder as the car approaches. The driver swerves towards me with a quick flick of his wrist on the steering wheel. Before I can even gasp, the car is swerved back and all that is heard is the fading laughter of the driver and his friends.

My eyes sting with the spasm of humiliation, shock and genuine disgust.

Despite the strong sense of indifference from some, I am surprised at how quickly and easily the cash rolls in. Within one hour, I have made R33.20. Nasif says he usually makes R10 a day.

A middle-aged woman with a neat blonde bob and dangling earrings, holds out her closed palm towards me. “I’m sorry, this is all I have,” she says apologetically before pulling off. She has placed R9 worth of coins in my hand.

The ricocheting extremes of disregard and generosity leave me feeling emotionally-manhandled.
Long after I have left the street, the image of Nasif hunched over on the pavement, the ridges of his spine sticking through his tattered shirt, will not leave my mind’s eye.

An attempt to contact Cape Town Child Welfare Society a few days later is met with the insistent sound of an engaged line. The Western Cape Department of Social Development does answer, only to put me through to six different people, all strangely terrified to comment on anything. I was then told I would be called back immediately. I am still waiting.

I heaved a sigh of relief when Childline picked up after a few rings. Lydia van Vuuren, a referral officer, spoke with sadness about street children’s ranking on the priority list.

“It is so rare that they can make the transition into foster families. Their peers on the street become their families and this is where most of them end up. We are too under-resourced to really change their lives,” she says regrettably.

This is not what I wanted to hear, even though I expected it. After this phone call, I complete the list I began after walking off the street:

4. Receiving small 
results causes a dim, transient euphoria.

5. This euphoria is linked to both the cash and the acknowledgment that you exist that comes with it.

6. Were I Nasif, this would be enough to make me return the next day to start it all again.

* This article also appears in The Agenda Press

55   12
RESPONSES (38)
  1. me says:

    Great article. Thanks for the effort in doing this.
    I always give when I can, except if the board says “God Bless”. I will not support christians in any way. Their church should be helping. Anyone who is stupid enough to believe in an imaginary friend like this, and then insult me with a trite ‘blessing’ is no brother of mine.

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  2. Jesus H says:

    Fuck me

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  3. GG2000 says:

    a very thought provoking article.and I think a very important social experiment

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  4. Ry says:

    Next you should not eat for the day to see what it’s like to suffer from malnutrition….
    There is such a major emotional disconnect between your reality and that of a beggar that it’s difficult to appreciate this account as anything other than cultural voyeurism.
    That said I guess it’s cool to experience new things, and you did a pretty good job of relating the experience, props for actually doing it too.

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  5. Sad Reality says:

    Agree with the user ‘me’
    An interesting test would be to go out the next day with a different board that left out the ‘god bless’. My guess is that she’d make far less money. The sad reality is that most South Africans are religious. Prejudice toward the non-religious is probably stronger than their other prejudices upheld by their religious texts (e.g. homosexuality, members of other religions etc.)

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  6. dadud says:

    probably help if you’d contextualised why you did this beyond an article about an afternoon in your life.

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  7. Zoe says:

    I hope you gave you R33.20 to Nasif and told him you were going home to your mother. Apart from that, good article. Props for using your trade to draw attention to the situation.

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  8. me says:

    @Ry, yeah look these experiments have been carried out time and again. Nothing original about it. Sure, she could have starved herself, got beaten up, not bathed for a month and crapped in her pants. How would this have changed her stance? We all know how terrible it must be on the streets. I don’t have to get raped to know how bad it must be.
    @Sad Reality: She’d definitely have got some money from me if her board had said: “Money for booze in this godless pit of hopelessness”

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  9. faraway says:

    I really enjoyed the piece and thought that your recount was well written and came from a great place.
    I’ve often thought about about attempting to do the same thing, just to experience it from the other side of the signboard.
    I might just try it for myself, thanks to you.

    my situation is a bit different in that I’m a south african living abroad in a european country where black imigrants have a rough deal, except if you’re a professional in which case the society gives you the same treatment as anyone. Ive seen how they treat beggars of thier own nationality much better than foriegners, so possibly the outcomes of my own experiment will have some unexpected results.

    If I do have the courage to do it, I will certainly be in touch.

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  10. no says:

    this is bullshit

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  11. Anonymous says:

    “Despite the strong sense of indifference from some, I am surprised at how quickly and easily the cash rolls in. Within one hour, I have made R33.20. Nasif says he usually makes R10 a day.” He’s probably not lying. Black poverty is expected, whilst white poverty is heart-breaking, even Nelson broke that down to us while on his long walk.

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  12. Mark says:

    ‘Sad reality’ and ‘me’.. You realise the only judgement taking place here is you two versus religious people. Fuck atheists who have a chip on their shoulders are annoying. I’m atheist and it annoys the shit out of me that people like you guys have a vendetta against people who believe differently. And we’re supposedly meant to be the more accepting and logical group. Anyway, interesting piece to read. I think there is so much more to it than simply standing there. The hunger, the cold, the uncertainty, the repetition etc.. Must’ve been really interesting to experience. Anonymous, I agree with you also. White poverty is seemingly different, which is a sad fact. I always panic when I see a white beggar a bit more, and I’m not sure why.. Hypothetically they could be family. I don’t know what it is.. Article made me think though, thanks author

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  13. Tristesse says:

    I am a white, and when I see white beggars it immediately gets my back up. I would imagine that they were given opportunities (during Apartheid). I feel awful for the other races that weren’t given as many opportunities as we were. I know that times are both challenging and changing however, all of us have families/friends, and so what did the white beggars do to be removed from all familiar circles? It must have been really bad in order for everyone to give up on them.

    It doesn’t matter what/who you believe in, or whether you believe at all, we are the rainbow nation and we have all got a long way to go in terms of integration –whether the beggar uses your R2 or your R10 for drugs or for food, shouldn’t they be afforded the option to do so? The R2 or R10 won’t make a big difference in your pocket –you probably would have used the money to buy chewing gum or to pay for parking. Pay it forward.

    Every day on the beach front in Durban (in front of Addington Hospital), a vehicle/s stops to provide food to some of the homeless people in that area –people of all ages, shapes and colour emerge off the streets to be fed. The sight of how many homeless people that there actually are in such a small area astounds me every time, without fail. There are countless social experiments/outreach projects that target many people but more often than not the targets are not reached, and poverty seems like an abyss to the masses. Numerous anthropological studies have deduced that you ought to teach a man to fish (and he will never go hungry) instead of simply giving him the fish –who has the time for that? We all have such ‘busy’ lives. A mere donation seems so much easier than devoting hours of your time to help someone. It’s the small things in life –ten minutes of your time could change a person’s life. The change starts with each of us, put aside your prejudice (whatever it may be), even if it is only for ten minutes and start the change.

    @Kim, I think this was a fantastic social experiment –take my hat off to you. I really enjoyed reading your article. It really got me thinking, and my heart thrumming for change.

    @Faraway, ”I really enjoyed the piece and thought that your recount was well written and came from a great place. I’ve often thought about about attempting to do the same thing, just to experience it from the other side of the signboard. I might just try it for myself, thanks to you.” Ditto. Well said.

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  14. unimportant says:

    @me ‘God bless’ is a figure of speech. Don’t be so sensitive.

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  15. mike says:

    having been a (white) drug addict on the streets, i know what it is like to beg, however, even for a drug addict, this was humiliating. it was one of a few “last resorts” that i didn’t call on too regularly.

    having been there, and done that, legitimately, i know what it’s like. i still do not give beggars money. ever.

    regarding the comment about white beggars getting someones back up? really? why should it make a difference… times are tough around the world… not all white people had lasting benefits from apartheid… not everything is clear like that. by your argument, a child taking over a parents business is expected to grow it? facts are that often those businesses disappear. inherited wealth is not wealth.

    the only people that dont get scorn from me begging on the streets are children, elderly, and cripples. A social disability grant of about R700 a month is really not enough to live on. Giving children money, in my opinion, doesn’t help them. If you really want to help, donate to child services, volunteer, do something proactive. Giving them money creates a problem, not a solution. Abled bodied people begging get nothing from me, not even the time of day, not even a cigarette. Anyone complaining that there is no work in south africa, is deluded, and lazy. when i first cleaned up, i took a job as a labourer on a building site, earning R100 per day. it was hard work… work i did for 6 months, and hopefully, will never have to do again. While i was on that site, at least 6 or 7 people came to the foreman and asked for work. He gave everyone the same answer… be here at 7.30am monday. In my 6 months of working there, 1 person showed up on the Monday morning, he worked the week, and never came back. No, beggars are either lazy, drug addicts, or alcoholics. They need to sort their shit out, not make it my problem.

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  16. Anonymous says:

    I hope you don’t feel liek you have made a difference or that you have any form of insight after this… because you haven’t and you don’t.
    A white girl pretending (and fooling nobody but herself) for the sake of a blog post is not the same as being actually destitute and deciding to beg at the robots.
    This is not about the suburban white being spiteful and soulless- that is just your experience of it. begging in Lotus River is just as much of a shame and a cop out as anywhere else.
    Don’t try to blame this on anyone.
    Backing it up with method acting does nothing for your internet cause but show how shallow the intent actually is…
    internet activism is getting nobody anywhere

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  17. Sad Reality says:

    @Mark – You get annoyed when atheists speak out against religion? Ok then.
    As soon as religions reject all forms of prejudice, stop interfering with education, stop interfering with what consenting adults do in private, lose their tax exempt status, I will remove the ‘chip’ from my shoulder and you’ll be less annoyed. Sound good?
    In the mean time you can continue with your uber liberal attitude and not speak out against oppressive ideologies. See how much good that does for South Africa and the world.

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  18. Sad Reality says:

    @Mark – And another thing. Speaking out against religion is not the same as having a ‘vendetta’ against religious people. I have religious family who I certainly don’t have a ‘vendetta’ against. It’s their beliefs I don’t respect. I respect their right to believe anything they want. But I will tell them what is wrong with their belief. Understand the difference?
    And lastly. You say Atheists are ‘meant to be more accepting’. Bullshit. The only thing that Atheists are ‘meant to be’ is not a theist. I.e. they do not claim that god(s) exists. That’s it.

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  19. me says:

    @Tristesse: if a beggar is going to buy drugs with my money I’d hope they are sharing. By the way, you are a racist fool. Just saying.

    @Mark: just because I’m anti religion doesnt make me part of any group, and dont downplay the fact that religion is often used as a tool for manipulation. This is exactly why christianity is such a despicable infection on humanity. “God bless you” (if you give me some money, if you don’t then live with the guilt of burning in eternal hell). The fact that people still blindly follow the drivel in that story book clearly shows just how far we still need to go in order to have an intelligent human race.

    @Sad Reality: I completely agree with your last comment. I have no vendetta against them. I do however judge a person’s intelligence based on their beliefs. Just as I would a person who speaks to the tooth fairy each night before bed, or who’s pets talk to them.

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  20. Anonymous says:

    oh wow so that his turned into every single other conversation on the internet…
    “I am an atheist hear me roar!!!!”
    get fucked shut the fuck up you aren’t bringing anything new.
    ZZZzz

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  21. me says:

    ^^^Anonymous^^^ I “kiffed” your comment above because I think it shows what a true hypocrite would say. Your comment brought nothing new, and showed what almost every thread on the internet is plagued by: mindless trolls with nothing to actually say but threaten and use profanity. And yes, I would like to “get fucked”. Hopefully tonight is the night. It’s been a while.

    Also, I never use the word atheist to describe my lack of faith. I don’t think christians deserve to attach their religion to everything, even those anti it. I rather use the term: sane, rational human being.

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  22. Anonymous says:

    hahahah just STFU
    you are an atheist for the purpose of telling other people you are an atheist. Like vegans who are vegans just so they have something to crusade for in public. U sir are so noble thank you for standing up for my rights
    Once again, get fucked (lol)
    good job making this thread into one of your arguments u are a true internet atheist

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  23. me says:

    Yes person above. I choose to be atheist just so that I can tell people that. Very clever. I’m also a vegan, because meat is murder. Although I’m sure a christian homeless person who eats roadkill is a far more spiritual being. God bless you

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  24. Anonymous says:

    well written and fuck the truth hurts! what can we do about it???

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  25. Yvonne du Preez says:

    Great article. You were very brave, I think. I wish all of us who would like to do something about it can get together and do something!

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  26. RichBoi Hipsterlieber says:

    I love comment sections! People commenting anonymously about everything in the heavens, the Earth and all that’s inbetween. Why? Coz they can. Like me. Sitting anonymously judging all of you. Like you. Sitting anonymously judging me. We have this idea that we know what’s best, for everyone. But what exacty are we doing? Nothing. Nothing at all. Not even educating one another. Props to Kim for doing this. The rest of us insecure humans who have points to prove will keep commenting in these comment sections. As for me, I will not reply to anybody, I will just sit here anonymously judging 🙂

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  27. me says:

    RichBoi Hipsterlieber, keep your comments to yourself next time. Or, try to add something that speaks the slightest bit of sense. Us Atheists don’t need to know that you think we judge you. I’m not, unless you are a christian. Then I wholeheartedly think you are a misled sheep.

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  28. RichBoi Hipsterlieber says:

    I know I said I wont reply, but I couldn’t resist. When I said “like me” I actually meant me (as in me, myself and I), not the commentor *me*. If you (dear *me*) cannot understand what I had to say in the previous post, I suggest you read more, on a wide range of topics, to increase your understanding of prose. And while I’m here, this is a comments section, its a platform to air my opinion via… a comment. If you cannot understand that, allow me to clarify – I are make comment by comment section wiff computher thyping on interwebs.

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  29. Anonymous says:

    A vegan atheist walks into a bar. Bartender says “Hey, are you a vegan atheist? Just kidding, you’ve mentioned it like eight times already.”

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  30. me says:

    RichBoi Hipsterlieber, you said: “As for me, I will not reply to anybody”. What else did you say that is bullshit? Oh, yes, everything else.

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  31. brandon says:

    great article. thanks. More of this Journo please Mahala

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  32. Gareth Hall says:

    Fantastic article and experience Kim. I commend you for your courage!

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  33. Petunia says:

    You are a very caring young woman, it is a pity that the Government does not share your feelings for these pathetic street children. Your Government members only consider their own luxury,wealth and comfort. There are many thousands of blacks who would agree that life was more comfortable and they enjoyed more under the Apartheid years than they do now with their own people running the country.

    It is a great shame that your country has so much poverty, your streets are full of beggars wherever one goes, yet Mr. Zuma and his cronies turn their heads to a nicer looking direction.

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  34. Jake says:

    In response to Tristesse comments about poverty seeming like an abyss. I agree it can seem that way and that is why when people choose to give to a charity they should choose a charity that is breaking the cycle of poverty and not just softening it. Charities like Heifer International South Africa are doing the whole “teach a man to fish” thing by teaching rural men and women how to farm and then giving them the tools to become successful entrepreneurs. A good practice to get into is saving your coins over the month and then giving them all to a specific charity at the end of every month. This will have a far greater effect than handing out 1 or 2 coins here and there.

    But it was a good article, as it draws attention to these people whom I think a lot of South Africans have become almost blind to, due to the fact that we see them so often. Well done.

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  35. super says:

    well done, notwithstanding certain comments above, it was thought provoking, and hopefully changed the outlook of some readers, at their next robot stop.

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  36. D says:

    Great article, I really enjoyed this journalist’s way of writing and concise summary that gives one a glimpse into this lifestyle.

    I followed the “* This article also appears in The Agenda Press”and found more of this journalist. A great talent for South Africa’s up and coming..

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  38. RFW says:

    I don’t know what to make of this article. As a third year journalism student, I think it’s a beautifully written piece. As an ordinary (black) South African, I have to ask: “What’s the point?”

    Everyone knows that the poor live in dehumanizing conditions and have to eke out a living. This article just states the blatantly obvious (white poverty is still seen as alien and the government is too short on resources to help). This is one of the biggest problems I have with immersion journalism. There’s an enormous difference between not knowing whether you’ll make enough for a loaf of bread and wrapping a bandage around your knee and “playing poor”. I presume you conducted this social experiment to identify with the plight of the poor. I doubt you did (not sufficiently enough anyway)

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