Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

For the poor will always be with you: and whensoever you will, you may do them good – to give the full quote from Matthew 26: 11 [the second half of Christ’s words are usually conveniently omitted] and this is certainly true in South Africa.

There are beggars everywhere but especially in areas like the Republic of Rosebank where expensive flats, exclusive hotels, pricey shops and popular shopping centres combine to create an air of both disposable wealth, white guilt, and foreign naivety.

The Citadel of Sandton, the Hyde Park Homeland and the Kingdom of Killarney are richer by far of course but they are all fortified, with armed guards keeping the rabble beyond the walls and the denizens safe from harassment in any form, including having their consciences pricked.

But despite all the upmarket accommodation, Rosebank is fairly open, and provides grand opportunities for beggars. Rosebank management tries to keep them out of the main shopping precincts but most suburban roads – where the designer flats and hotels are situated – are fair game.

Begging is one of the oldest ‘professions’, along with prostitution and the priesthood, but its practitioners are not very professional. How often have you been approached twice on consecutive days by the same personal flogging the same hard luck story about needing just R10 for a bus ticket to get to where-ever to see his sick wife/child/mother?

And there was an attractive, very chic, foreign woman who worked the suburban streets saying her car had broken down and could she just borrow R50 for the tow truck? And the motherly figures asking for money for an orphanage, but without a charity number. Challenge them and they promise to produce it the next day.

The next day they will beg from you again, and again without the number proving their bona fides. Then there’s the man with the horribly mangled arm who says he’s a refugee and cannot receive free treatment at a local hospital: he needs money for a private doctor.

That kind of story works only once, and when a colleague gave him R500, and told our office this tale of woe, the rest of us were forewarned and when approached by a dread locked man with an apparently horrific injury, kept our money in our purses.

Before I was retrenched, when I still walked from the Times Media building across the car-park to the shops, I was accosted several times a day. There was the elderly white beggar with a crutch and a bandaged foot who needed money for a bus ticket to get to his daughter.

There was the smartly dressed Zambian who needed money to make a phone call.  There were youngsters collecting for their ‘schools’, women collecting for Indigent Children or Aids Orphans or Child-Headed Families  or Abused Wives or Abandoned Babies; and once you get to the supermarket thee are all those ‘parents’ who need just another R5 to be able to buy their children stationery or their school uniform.

The same people would spin me the same story several times a week: I understand this is their job, but to be any good at it they should try and recognise their punters. I know all whites look alike, but if you are wanting them to give you money, you should recognize those you see every day and change your story.

I am irresistible to beggars. England, Ireland, Scotland, China, Greece or Mauritius, Beggars take one look at me and see their meal-ticket to a better life. I’ve never had any money but since I was a little girl walking home from school, I have always been accosted to part with what I don’t have.

I suspect it is something about my face; gormless, amiable and gullible. Just the sort of person who would buy the Brooklyn Bridge, be greedy and stupid enough to invest in a Ponzi Scheme, then be kind-hearted enough to give it all away to someone claiming to be collecting for homeless orphans.

I look like a kindly sheep but my Scottish genes have made me thrifty and hard headed about parting with a single cent: ask me to give you money and I will interrogate you to be sure your cause is not only worthy but legitimate. The problem is stupid-looking old women are not supposed to do that.

Who else has argued with street children on the pavement,  accosted beggars in car parks, or harassed ‘collectors’ for their bona fides? I kick myself every time yet when I am singled out because of my colour and my gender, I always start questioning the beggar and it ends up in a race/sex/age/white privilege thing.

But now I too am unemployed my problems have ceased: beggars may not recognize you when you are yet another person on the street: stop and chat though, tell them you too are out of work – in my case point out your shoes, falling apart – and from being a mark you become a person.

I wave at the beggar with the mangled arm who cons money out of bleeding heart liberals with his refugee story, and I stop to chat about upcoming sales with the women collecting for ‘orphans’.

The addicts and streat children though are a lost cause. I used to fight with a youth in faded red jeans, accusing him of targeting the whites, and harassing me on my door step. That was six months ago. He was feisty and articulate with excellent English.

I didn’t give him money but, alas, others did. He now staggers up and down my road, talking to himself, crying, begging, dirty, empty – there are many young male prostitutes in this area, maybe he sells his body: I can’t imagine how else he’d make money. Lost.

Beggars are people too, pursuing their profession the way any salesman does. I am a lost cause –  now they understand this bovine face masks a hard heart not a soft touch – but also a friendly neighbour who will stop to talk for a while, in the African way.

The poor will always be with us but, as Christ said, we can do them good if we wish: a friendly conversation is better than passing by, looking in the opposite direction. If your shoes are cheap and falling apart, almost every woman will understand that you have no money to spare. .

Addicts are another story though, especially in a country where free rehab facilities are few and far between: the boy in the pink pants was clever and confident in April and May when we had regular arguments. I could talk to him then: now his addiction has rendered him incapable of conversation.




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