Suspended Consciencesby Daniel Sher / 02.04.2013
“A skinny latte for me, and second one suspended please.” Lately Cape Town’s newsfeeds and imaginations have been abuzz with discussion about the innovative concept of ‘suspended coffee’. It entails a well-off patron visiting a café and pre-paying for a beverage, which is claimed at a later stage by someone who lacks the means to purchase their own.
Originally an Italian tradition, café sospeso began in Naples before spreading to Bulgaria, New York, and beyond. Now, courtesy of globalization, we are witnessing attempts at importing yet another foreign ideological framework into South Africa’s uniquely complicated social context.
Mere hours after tentatively suggesting the concept’s suitability in Cape Town, a single Facebook post from Charly’s Bakery has gone viral, attracting widespread support amongst South Africa’s charitable online community. Internet-based hype provides an interesting opportunity for social commentary, and the need for critical debate is implied whenever this involves taking action on behalf of the disenfranchised (remember Kony?). So, I’d like discuss some of the more problematic aspects of the suspended-coffee concept, if only to fuel the fire of the infamous ‘forum trolls’, who will, no-doubt, relish this opportunity to lambaste yet another generic ‘Mahala cynic’. Like a lamb to the slaughter, here I go.
The most obvious problem is that a popular establishment like Charly’s will inevitably struggle to retain their upmarket clientele if they are attracting a new group of people from a lower socio-economic standing. Already, their Facebook page has been flooded with comments such as the following:
“It’s a lovely idea, but realistically I think the type of homeless people who hang around the Fruit & Veg and soup kitchen in your road would abuse the advantage and make your premises unpleasant to visit. As an alternative, maybe ask customers to make a coffee donation as they pay, then set up a “coffee station” a few times a week in the back parking area.”
And my personal favourite, from Cape Town’s very own savoury version of Marie Antoinette:
“Yes to coffee. No to cake. I would support meal equivalent like pies, quiche.”
Already we’re seeing people who, despite admirable intentions, end up stereotyping homeless people and assuming a patronizing attitude regarding the foods that they should be allowed to consume. It’s the same dilemma faced by every other charity and identity-based libratory movement: in order to help the disenfranchised, you first have to identify them as a collective “other”. Thus, in the posts quoted above, they are stereotyped as a certain ‘type of homeless people’, who are described as desperately opportunistic and who will undoubtedly make the ‘premises unpleasant to visit’. As such, the homeless are identified as a separate category of people, for whom a separate ‘coffee station’ must be set up down the road at the back of the parking lot. Welcome to the era of coffee-apartheid!
Furthermore, it’s imperative to remember that in South Africa homelessness generally comes with a side-portion of mental illness, violence, rape, unemployment and a gaping lack of social services and basic human rights. Homelessness here is not simply an eccentric lifestyle choice, as the case may be in some First World countries. Quite frankly, to offer coffee as consolation for the above might be viewed as outright insulting; particularly when doing so simultaneously allows donors to temporarily suspend their consciences and forget about the continuing need for social justice in this country.
Finally, the whole endeavour seems ironically artificial and inhumane. It’s like a feeble attempt to institutionalize a sense of humanity on behalf of those who are unwilling to express it themselves: “We want to help them, just as long as we don’t have to interact with them. And as long as they don’t get their coffee from the same counter that we do.”
And there are obvious comparisons with KFC’s Add Hope campaign, which is just as problematic.
Having said all of that, I am, believe it or not, a human being after all. I too understand the pleasure that a warm beverage can bring, and I too empathise with those who are forced to live in the cold. Despite the subtle racism, classism and a variety of other ‘isms’ that might be read into the recent spate of hype, it’s heartening to see a humanitarian-based trend finally penetrating the dense online-fog of cat photos, Harlem Shake videos and the other assorted idiocy we choose to waste our time with online.
At the end of the day, I’m optimistic and excited about the suspended-coffee concept. Perhaps it represents a gradual shift away from self-centred materialism, reflecting a growing tendency to view people from different backgrounds as human beings with common desires and emotions! So I’d like to encourage Charly’s to face the challenge of implementing this concept, and I’d like to see outlets across South Africa following suit. I’d also like to see collective empathy become a trend amongst my own, middle-class demographic; with young-professionals buying suspended coffees and meals on a daily basis. But I’d like to see all of the above done with the critical issues discussed here taken into account, because it’s only through critical thinking that the suspended-coffee concept is ultimately going to benefit, rather than further disenfranchise, those who are in need.