Beggars prove promises were betrayed

Who can deny that the ugliest and most damning sight of our "miracle transition" is that of poor black people begging for money and food at traffic lights in all our major cities?

Who can deny that the ugliest and most damning sight of our "miracle transition" is that of poor black people begging for money and food at traffic lights in all our major cities?

And who could have imagined after the watershed 1994 democratic election that we would have the pervasive presence of black beggars on our roads today, when they were supposed to be reaping the benefits the ANC promised us 12 years ago?

This sight - now so depressingly familiar for motorists - is the most unfortunate manifestation of a "social transformation" gone horribly wrong.

No image contradicts or explodes more clearly the claim by the ANC that black people are materially better off today than they were under apartheid, when we know that then - brutal as that system was - we hardly saw black beggars on our roads.

Thanks to the neo-liberal policies the ANC has adopted since 1994, these people - the most powerless and poorest of the black masses - are in every respect the opposite of the mega-rich black elite that the class compromises of the negotiated settlement in 1993 spawned.

But behind the degrading spectacle of begging - that any democracy would be ashamed of - lies perhaps an unconsciously subversive element.

Rather than starve in the townships or elsewhere, where their poverty is unseen by the rich and powerful, they expose it on our roads. They expose it in contrast with the obscene wealth of the black elite.

They expose the charade of freedom and accomplishment such elites boast about.

Black beggars epitomise the conscience of the social justice that millions of blacks dreamed of after 1994, and remind us all so palpably of the "unfinished business" we need to collectively tackle to "build a better life" - which the government had promised us.

They are the most visible, tangible and heart-wrenching manifestation of how much post-apartheid's neo-liberalism has compromised the most basic social and material aspirations of the poorest black people.

For many privileged motorists the fact that the first thing in the morning that assaults their senses is the miserable sight of these black beggars is something they wish they could have avoided.

Add to this depressing sight the searing humiliation these people must feel to be often rudely and angrily turned away, insulted and sometimes assaulted for the desperate measures their poverty has driven them to.

And to rub in the misery and prejudice we often close our windows, rudely wave them away, swear at them, lie to them that we have no money or show our contemptible disgust for them by throwing a few cents at them.

So bad is the poverty these beggars face that there are some who appear to feign blindness or carry babies on their backs in order to enhance their chances of getting some money.

This is the terribly ugly side our much-acclaimed democracy prefers not to talk about because it reminds us of the betrayals by our elected leaders.

I am not just writing about white drivers. I have seen many well-heeled black drivers, with big flashy cars, dish out such treatment to black beggars.

This segment of the population brazenly displays a raw class hostility that abandons any notion of racial sympathy and solidarity, even for a rand or two.

But those who treat these beggars with contempt must know that they will not go away easily.

They are here to stay, as the most starkly visible and daily reminder of a "non-racial capitalist democracy" they have yet to benefit from - unlike the black business elite and middle class.

lEbrahim Harvey is a political writer and Ford Foundation Fellow at Wits University.