Something that continues to be a prevalent topic of conversation here in Cape Town is the enormous wealth gap that exists within South African society. The country is one of the most unequal places in the world with the fabulously wealthy living alongside (albeit behind fences) the penniless. During our time here we have met some of the most influential people of modern South African history, many of who have graciously invited us into their homes for tea and discussion. Visiting these lavish South African homes, as well as staying in Tamboerskloof (a very safe, quiet, and wealthy neighborhood in Cape Town) has provided stark contrast to the scenes I see elsewhere in the city. Every day walking to and from work, I am approached or called to by people on the street who are either trying to sell me some trinket they made or who are purely begging for their next meal. These people represent the most desperate group of South African society: despite their constant pleas, hardly anyone ever pays attention to them beyond the cursory glance. Occasionally someone with loose change will shrug off the intensity of a stare of starvation by giving away a few coins. Most however, including me, simply walk on by. To be honest, I rarely feel guilty for not giving money directly to these people. Besides the obvious safety concern of engaging with strangers, I have no way of knowing whether my attempt at benevolence is paying for a hot meal, or enabling a drug addiction. I prefer contributing to communities in more sustainable ways. Or so I tell myself. Sometimes I wonder if this logic is just a guise designed to absolve myself of responsibility for other people’s welfare.
To provide an example that reflects my shaky morals, I will tell a story. Last week I was walking home from work with Patty when we were approached by a very frazzled man who asked us if we knew where the nearest tourism booth was. Neither of us had any idea, so we shook our heads, apologized and continued walking. Apparently though, we were his last hope, because this man matched our stride and seemed close to tears as he frantically explained to us that he was visiting South Africa and had locked his keys and valuables inside his rental car, which was parked outside the District Six Museum. We continued walking as he told us his plight, but we were very unclear why he needed a tourism booth if his keys were locked in his car and he wanted to get back to his hotel. At first we advised him to talk to the police to begin resolving his issue, but he wasn’t really listening and kept on desperately rambling about his problem. By the time we reached the main road, he had reached the edge of his patience. He stopped walking with Patty and me and seemed to begin having a meltdown on the sidewalk. Patty and I grudgingly stopped as well and contemplated how we could help him. It was very disconcerting to see this well-dressed, well-spoken grown man look so helpless.
Finally, we decided to see if we could help him. I returned to his tantrum spot and tried to get him to calm down. I asked him to rephrase his dilemma a little more slowly, which allowed me to understand that he needed to get back to his hotel in order to make a phone call to get his car unlocked, but his phone was locked in the car, which was itself rendered unusable because the keys were also locked in. He couldn’t pay for a cab home because of course his wallet was also locked in the car. At this point, I realized that I could turn around this man’s entire day with one simple action. I chose to pay for his cab ride back to his hotel. After giving him the money I was proclaimed “a true angel” and was promised that my money would be returned to me in an envelope at the desk of the District Six Museum the next day. The expression of gratefulness and relief that washed over this man’s face convinced me that my intervention was worth it.
After this little hiccup in our daily walk home from work, Patty and I continued on our way. Not two minutes later, we were approached by two street children who began to persistently clamor for some coins. Automatically, I shook my head and sorrowfully told them I didn’t have any money. This wasn’t true—I had plenty of money in my backpack; I had just given a considerable portion of it to help someone else in need. Clearly, however, my sense of altruistic obligation only extended to those deemed worthy of my attention. What made this man any different than the two children? Was it his clothes? His accent? The reassurance that we could relate to each other on a class level more than I could with the children? Immediately after the children scurried off to their next prospect, I felt a twinge of shame. What gave me the right to decide who deserved help? I am still struggling to answer this question.