A Poor Problem

Jun 01, 11 A Poor Problem

When considering the previous post on South Africa’s problem with poverty, it is important to bear in mind that this war not only manifests in the form of police brutality, but in other, more ‘passive aggressive’ ways as well. It seems that in South Africa a poor person, by virtue of being poor- gives up many rights that most of us take for granted. Drive along any major road in Gauteng, and you’re bound to come across the poor souls in various stages of decomposition, with hands outstretched. In many cases a baby will be strapped to Mommy’s back. One might be forgiven for thinking ‘what possessed her to have children?’ Regardless of the circumstances surrounding conception, and if we’re all honest with ourselves, many a ‘knee-jerk-thought’ has centred on this very theme. Being poor, excludes one from having the right to bear children.

On a more official and less subjective level though, the use of what’s known as the “Means Test” is a popular way for the government to decide which lucky poor person gets to live off their various Social Grants. In order for poor people to access these grants, they must be deemed deserving. Enter the “Means Test”. To prove that they are indeed as pathetically poor as they claim to be, applicants are subject to invasive interrogation and investigation. Thus, the poor are also not afforded the right to privacy or dignity for that matter. I’m sure this does wonders for their self esteem.

The catch phrase “poor services for poor people’, is indicative of South Africa’s attitude to the poor. Pop in to any government institution involved with providing for the poor and you’ll find that they are generally inefficient and lacking basic infrastructure. People wait for hours, sometimes in heat or pouring rain to collect grants. Fetching chronic medicine from a government clinic or hospital can take an entire work day- if you’re lucky. Being poor means you are at the mercy of others. If you’re not paying for a service, you should be happy with what you get… or so the argument goes.

Unfortunately, the poor are like a nagging little stone in one’s shoe, a constant reminder that all is not right with the world. They’re mostly viewed with pity or indifference and at times even loathing. Most of us (or just me) try to justify their predicament by fabricating back stories in our heads, ‘I’m sure he’s homeless due to drug addiction’ or ‘She’s begging because she’s lazy’. Furthermore, the government seems to have a love-hate relationship with the poor. As much as they need the ‘poor vote’, at every turn a riot or protest draws attention to the very obvious inability of the government to provide for these people.

As long as the South African government implements a ‘Neo-Liberal’ economic model- there will always be poor people. A country reliant on the so-called ‘invisible hand’ of market forces means that some will benefit and some will not- such is the indiscriminate nature of the market. Added to this ‘inequality’ is a value attributed to the “Neo-Liberal” model- thus by definition, financial stability is a luxury that cannot be afforded to everyone. Though, this model also espouses that one is given the opportunity to do what ever it takes (As long as its legal) to better their circumstances. This is what is known as ‘freedom’. However, freedom can only flourish if it is allowed to operate in a context that is conducive to human development. This means, a country needs to offer its citizens safety, stability, good public services as well as a government that is efficient and free from corruption.

Going back to “A Nation at War with the Poor”, should the government figure out a way to allow ‘economic dominance’, but at the same time address the social issues associated with poverty, perhaps police brutality would be less prominent- as riots, crime and general dissatisfaction would decrease. People who have the resources to address their basic needs are likely to be satisfied and less likely to engage in illegal and violent activities- obviously.

Image by Axel Bührmann

  • Button Dean

    And on the flip-side of the coin is a community of people who perpetually look for handouts, seek government grants as a form of unemployment insurance, and see the state as having taken over as the tribal leader they have lost.

    Go to one of the government hospitals mentioned and see the queue of people looking for disability grants based on nebulous claims. The Road Accident Fund has also been a victim of such spurious claims since the 1990s. The MVA claims attorneys have touts trawling hospitals looking for their next claimant, and very little difficulty finding them.There have been many disadvantaged groups throughout history who have not resorted to illegal and violent means; why should this excuse be tolerated in South Africa?

    • John

      There is a big difference between “disadvantaged” and the chronic, unending poverty that has been in South Africa for generations. The poorest of the poor have a long-understood prediliction towards violence, regardless of continent.

      But more importantly, even if the poor do not protest, doesn’t make them any less entitled to a basic quality of life. Are there fraudulent claims? Certainly, but that exists in any welfare institution, and should not be any semblance of justification for depriving the poor of services.