Uncle Alan

The other day I was walking around near my hotel looking for something to eat, not realising that all the restaurants and shops were closed due to a national holiday and not, as I surmised, a massive evacuation to enable everyone to go home and watch the Bafana Bafana match on TV.

A young man started walking along beside me, asking for money.  That's nothing new in most big cities, let alone in one like Cape Town where there is so much poverty existing alongside so much wealth.  Initially I was a little nervous of the man.  I was alone, there was nobody on the streets, I couldn't catch everything he was saying.  But then I listened to him more closely and he told me he was asking for money for him and his sister, they were both orphans and they needed to eat.  I had 23 rand in change in my pocket.  That's about 3 dollars.  I gave it to him.

His face lit up.  He asked me my name and when I told him he kept calling me Uncle Alan and telling me how this would mean he and his sister would be able to eat soup for lunch and then again for dinner that night.  I was moved by how happy and grateful he was.  And also shamed, as I was wearing my new Bafana Bafana soccer shirt that had cost me 220 rand the day before.

It's a very difficult to thing to negotiate poverty.  Because you can't possibly give to everyone who asks you on the streets, but at the same time you can't be impermeable to suffering and genuine need.  I always think every time I give a homeless person or a beggar money that I will redouble my efforts to stop poverty and its causes through activism and support of organisations that are skilled in this pursuit.

Right now in South Africa it is very galling to see so much money being spent on stadiums and roads and sprucing up of the place, and at the same time hearing of people demonstrating because they still do not have electricity or proper toilets in their homes.  It feels to me like the poor people of this country -  and they are also black people - are a very patient and accepting people, who have understood that the changes they were promised cannot come as quickly as they all would like.  Nelson Mandela's message when he was released from prison was indeed about patience and conciliation and forgiveness, but Ithink that all these years later, and with such opulence available to some -  an visitors to the country at that - the people's patience must be wearing thin.