South Africans are still poor. And the number of poor people seems to be growing. The report Poverty Trends in South Africa released by StatsSA this week confirms these commonly known, yet easily ignored facts. There have been major achievements and changes in poverty reduction since the dawn of democracy.
However, the gains made have not been enough, the facts are frightening. Poverty has increased since 2011. More than one in two South Africans are poor and approximately 7.4 million South Africans survive on R441 or less per person per month.
The numbers and statistics in the report match our day-to-day experiences. The report tells us poverty divides us along racial lines and has an age and a gender bias. Black Africans, children, young people as well as the elderly and women are significantly more affected by poverty.
However, numbers and statistics often allow us to remove ourselves from the human experience of poverty. Imagine just for one minute what it means to be poor and how small actions could contribute to making a difference in someone's life.
If you are reading this article you are most likely not poor. You have access to the internet, you have a smart phone, a PC, a laptop or tablet. Most likely you are [self] employed. This means you belong to a fortunate minority in South Africa. Just by the virtue of having a job, no matter how bad the wage, you are relatively privileged even if you don't own a house, a car and you just manage to get by every week with your wage.
Being poor also means you are more vulnerable. The common flu might cost you your job -– if you don't pitch up, someone else gets the job.
Being poor is not a unifying experience. 'The poor' is, of course, not a homogenous group, poverty itself has many facets and affects people in different ways. Ways that we -- who live middle-class lives cannot even imagine, I am sure.
I agree that government, the private sector and civil society should rack their brains to find sustainable strategies to address the structural issue of poverty. But there are things we can do on a day-to-day basis. We see and engage with poverty through the people with whom we interact, we can make a difference right there.
My reality check often happens through the interaction with the person who cleans my house. Recently, I tried to get hold of her for several days. I called, I texted but the phone was just off. On the day she was supposed to come, I left a piece of paper with my phone number behind, hoping she would; maybe she'd lost her phone.
She called from my place saying that she didn't have electricity to charge her phone. No electricity means no warm water to wash, no kettle to make coffee, no stove or microwave to cook and no lights. It means not being able to charge your phone meaning no access to any income generating activity. She was left in the dark, in every sense.
On another day, I thought she looked very fragile and when I asked her she said her fridge broke and she had kept her meat at a neighbour's house. The neighbours had finished her food and her kids had to go hungry. Being poor also means you are more vulnerable. The common flu might cost you your job -– if you don't pitch up, someone else gets the job.
Remember that poverty is multifaceted.
You are more vulnerable to crime and accidents. You have less recourse to remedy, like healthcare or insurance. The drowning of a four-year-old boy in a pit toilet is one horrendous example among many others. Being poor means to have very little time to enjoy life.
This does not only refer to enjoying things that cost money but it also means that you will have less time to spend with your family, relax and just be because you are busy making a living or surviving, working long hours under conditions that skirt the labour law. Or worrying about how to.
And being poor also means that you often don't experience life in a dignified way. If you are poor you should be praised and respected. Surviving, coping and assisting others to do so –- the poor should be lauded as true South African heroes.
So what is it that we can do? Herewith a few things and I am sure there are much more.
- Paying fair or even living wages and salaries to your domestic worker, nanny, gardener.
- Treat people with dignity and respect. Don't belittle or patronise.
- Be humble with servers, retail workers and cleaners.
- Offering fair conditions for employment like sick leave, maternity leave etc.
- Employ someone for a few hours if you can -– part-time, full-time, temporary -– it makes a huge difference in that person's life.
- Give that little extra food away -– don't waste, don't throw it away.
- Don't look away –- it is uncomfortable for a reason. Make eye contact. Seeing someone is a form of respect.
- Provide assistance and access to information.
- Remember that poverty is multifaceted.
- Donating to good causes.