My mother is the kind of woman who adopts just about anything and anyone. She is selflessly generous if you find yourself in need and I had grown up with her voice in my head constantly saying “treat others how you would like to be treated”. So very early into our democracy, I was shocked to see her visibly react to a white beggar. Gone was the warmth and care that was offered to almost all who crossed her path and in it’s place I saw a harshness I would not soon forget. Time and time again, I saw my mother give to those who came knocking on our door, even when money was tight, no one was ever turned away without a hot meal. So why did she display such apathy, in fact disgust when she saw a white beggar? Her explanation to me at the time was simple, she had no sympathy for a people from a minority that were given every opportunity during the apartheid and still ended up in that position. For my mother, the white beggar we saw had the world handed to him on a silver platter, while she had to fight and claw her way through life and he deserved no sympathy from her.
I think about that beggar sometimes, as I think of the many beggars I come across daily, people who, in the areas in which I travel, are either black or white. I think about the hollow desolation, the desperate hunger and the blithe disregard they experience. And I wonder how it is that race affects that hunger, that desolation. Does a white man, whose parents benefited from the apartheid feel less hungry than the black man who holds up a funny sign at the traffic light? Who is more deserving of the spare change or warm blanket I can offer? I do not know how to measure suffering.
I do not blame my mother for her remark, the apartheid regime served to shape her life and the choices she would make. I cannot blame my mother for her callous disregard for a minority that was so well served at the expense of most of South Africa’s people. But I also cannot agree with her short-sightedness in that moment, I cannot agree that we should be blind to someone’s plight because of their race. I also cannot blame white people who worry about their children getting jobs, who bemoan the fate of “their whites” standing at traffic lights in a country that they once run. I cannot blame people who see white beggars and believe that is a microcosm for South Africa. I cannot blame old white men who cling onto their positions of power for fear that they will be replaced by a “BEE candidate”. But I also cannot agree with them, I cannot agree with their short-sightedness. My beliefs are simple, I believe in equality, I believe that South Africa must attempt to right the wrongs of it’s past in order for the country as whole to progress. I believe that if we are able, we should help those we can. I also believe in meritocracy and that “transformation” in terms of BEE makes sense coupled with this concept. We do not have adequate black representation in corporate South Africa, consider black females and the numbers become even more dire. In our very young democracy, we live in a very unequal country. And if we are to tip the scales and see real transformation in our country, we are going to have to find a way around our short-sightedness.