You need this song playing in the back of your mind. It makes the storytelling so much more arresting.
South Africans like to think they are immeasurably different from other Africans; when in fact, they are not. There is a wide spread and indoctrinated belief that all Africans north of the Limpopo are savage, ignorant things. It’s what they were taught in school. Even amongst themselves, there are elitist clusters, each declaring superiority over the other. English whites are better than Boers; Cape Coloreds are better than other Coloreds; and ANYONE is better than Blacks. It’s simply modern day tribalism with more tribes, some fancy gadgets and a treaty or two in the mix.
And like the rest of Africa, life is very (very) good if you’re rich and really (really) sucks if you’re poor.
What does make South Africa unique is the way it treats its poor, however. There are no safety nets ‘up in Africa’ for the poor, unless you have some benevolent relative who is willing to send money back home until his/her good will runs out. The government does not get into the business of caring for the country’s destitute. It truly is every man for himself. In South Africa, the uneducated, the sick, the poor and the unfortunate in general are eligible for a grant… which is essentially what we call welfare in America.
The process for keeping the poor in a state of deprivation and still content with the deplorable workings of the government work the very same way they do in America: you give them access to minimal education, feed them garbage, keep them in barely sufficient housing and throw a few hundred dollars (or Rand in this instance) at the masses every month, while drilling in that the welfare-facilitating state is not the enemy.
“Those racist conservatives who want to take away your benefits are the enemy,” they proclaim. “They are the ones who deserve neither your trust nor your vote!”
But the people are not satisfied.
“We want jobs!” they cry.
And what does the government do? Send in community leaders to assure them that jobs are coming. Good paying jobs too; as street sweepers! And in their ignorance, the less educated feel it is their mandate to assist in ‘job creation’ by littering their own environs and never thinking twice about picking up rubbish if it blew in their path. At least that’s what they say in the colored townships… that and it’s not their duty to pick up trash in their neighborhood anyway.
And so a sheepish population is created, milling about doing this and that to survive, dependent on a government that has kept them barely literate and semi-skilled. This is where a little boy named Kweikwei and a feeding frenzy at local ATMs that comes every first of the month.
I’ve only heard of the fabled feeding frenzy in snickers and whispers in Atlanta. Every first to third of the month, swarms of people descend upon big box stores – usually Wal*Mart – and attack the bread, milk, cereal, meat and cigarette aisles. This usually happens after midnight, from what I’ve heard. The result is a store wrecked and stripped bare of the essentials that usually sit in plenty.
So this Saturday when we drove through Knysna on the way to Sedgefield market, I was intrigued. By the thronging crowds slowly making their way in one direction. Was it a street fair, I asked.
“No,” replied our host. “This is the first of the month. Everyone with a grant gets their debit cards reloaded and they go to withdraw their money.”
Actually, not really.
The grant system is rife with charlatans, scoundrels and thieves. I discovered that the downward spiral into poverty starts with a promise. Men from larger townships will venture into the Transkei with their taxis and lure villagers with the promise of housing and good jobs in the Western Cape. Don’t have a car? Not to worry! For as little as R1000, I will ferry you back to the Western Cape with me. I’ll even allow you to come on credit. Just pay me when you get a job.
Now of course, you city slicker reading this knows there is no job in the big city, and you already know what happens to our hapless villager. He/she is now drowning in debt to the taxi driver, who collects his money in interest. To get the loan shark off his back, the villager seeks out a Big Mama, who advices the villager to seek a grant and again loans him money to pay the taxi driver.
“But I will hold your bank card until I have been paid in full,” she says with finality. And that is that.
And so every month, at an ABSA or StanChart ATM, you will see a Big Mama with five or six ATM cards, withdrawing her portion and giving the remainder of the money to the grantee until next month or whenever her loan has been paid in full.
With no work, a structure that can hardly be called a home, and no purpose in life overall, our villager turns to one of two things: God or drugs.
Unfortunately for him, God wants him to work in some respect, and usually offer his service for free. Paint this building, weed this lawn, and so forth. Also, and even more unfortunately, the church (or God) is destitute, and hardly able to pay for the upkeep of the church. At least with drugs he can create an alter ego and a virtually reality for himself. Fortunately, tik (meth) is plentiful and affordable. A few smashed out car lights and a hand shake later, our villager is hooked… and there are no services – at least for free – to help him successfully break his habit.
This story repeats itself, again and again, like bad rash that won’t heal, no matter what kind of balm you rub on it; and in the midst of this canker sits a frail 6 year old boy named Kweikwei, who suffers daily abuse from his mother’s drug addicted boyfriend and who herself will not allow him to stay with an adoptive mother who genuinely cares for him all because of hopes of collecting a piece of welfare money via his scarred flesh.