'Beggars can't be choosers' mentality an insult to poor

We go and buy food for poor people, whatever the risks or legal implications are, because deep down we don't trust the with "our" money, the writer says.
We go and buy food for poor people, whatever the risks or legal implications are, because deep down we don't trust the with "our" money, the writer says.
Image: Gino Santa Maria/123RF

The Covid-19 national lockdown has had significant ramifications on the SA economy. The closing down of nonessential businesses has rendered millions of our people out of work. The most vulnerable of these are those who have already been in precarious employment.

They include, but are not limited to, street vendors, domestic workers and students who have now been forced to return home with little or no support.

This has created a situation in which many families are starving, and while the government has made a commitment to provide food relief and other forms of aid, the reality of the situation is that not everyone is receiving this assistance and, in most cases, it is coming in far too slowly and is inadequate.

In response, many of us have started donation drives aimed at providing food aid to the most destitute families. These drives are certainly a much-needed intervention and are assisting many families to put a meal on the table.

But while I am pleased by the commitment of activists to lend a helping hand, I am deeply disturbed by the tendency to humiliate the poor in the process and I often ask myself why this is happening to begin with. A question I keep asking is why in the middle of the lockdown, is it necessary for us to leave our homes to donate food to people in their own homes?

Many argue that it is mainly for cheap political scoring, but I think it is far more insidious than that. I think we do this because we are, in fact, committed to infantilising of the poor.

We treat poor people as though they are children. So, we go and buy food for them, whatever the risks or legal implications are, because deep down we don't trust poor people with "our" money.

We don't trust that a mother with children knows what food her children need. We don't trust that the poor can use the money properly. That's why people like social media influencer Lasizwe, after sending poor people electricity vouchers, posted that they must all "use it properly".

The thinking is that because people are poor, they are infants and therefore our burden. We are effectively saying that we as the middle class know better, that the poor would not use the money correctly if we were to give it to them.

So, we buy them what we think ought to be a staple or are basics for the poor. We don't care whether they want Joko or rooibos tea. We don't care whether they eat Tastic or Spekko rice.

We don't care whether they use Colgate or Aqua fresh. We want to decide for them because to us poor people have no right to preferences. It is a "beggars can't be choosers" mentality.

But the poor are not children and they are not without agency. We must stop infantilising people. And we must stop thinking that just because people are poor and need our help then we have the right to decide what's good for them. I think we must, as far as possible, give people money as food vouchers, not go and donate food to them.

I've always done this, even with students. Give people money. This way we respect their autonomy and allow them the right to determine what they eat in their own homes.

They know it better than we do. Imagine buying people peanut butter because in your mind that's what poor people eat, and yet in that household people are allergic to peanut butter.

This is what stripping people of their right to buy their own groceries can do. Being poor means people don't have resources, not that they can't think for themselves. Poor people have dignity too, and I think we need to internalise this even as we try to do good.

We also need to stop taking photos of poor people holding our food donations and other such humiliating things. It is not right. When we help people, cameras must be left behind.

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