The Voices at My Gate

May 3, 2018

In South Africa we recently celebrated Human Rights Day when we remember the Sharpeville massacre that took place on the 21st of March 1960. On that fateful day 58 years ago 69 people died and 180 were wounded when police fired on a peaceful crowd that had gathered in protest against the pass laws of the time. These laws were enforced through a form of domestic passport system (referred to by its carriers as a “dompas”) fundamentally intended to segregate the population across racial and tribal lines, controlling the flow of migrant labour, and to manage urban development, essentially framing urban areas as white areas, and requiring any non-white citizens over the age of 16 to carry their pass book at all times within urban (read white) areas.

Although South Africa still struggles with its own demons, and racial and socialist invective flies thick and fast, we’ve walked that rocky path together, and come a heck of a long way since the dark days of apartheid. But this is not about politics, or the history of South Africa. I want to relay my experience of Human Rights Day 2018, and I hope it leads to interactions that help me to rediscover the high levels of faith in humanity that I’ve always tried to foster, and that, on Tuesday the 20th of March, were still quite resilient, but since that day, have been waning.

I woke up to voices at my gate. Being a public holiday, I wanted to have a bit of a lie in, as we all do when the rare opportunity comes, to catch up on some sleep. “Roll over Paul, it’s nothing. Go back to sleep”. But the voices don’t diminish. I can pick up bits of conversation, and it piques my interest just enough to get up and investigate. When I walk outside I find my beautifully significant other chatting to a familiar face. Tommy comes around every now and then to ask for help. He’s unemployed, and tries to eke out a living working in suburbanites gardens and taking any piece job that he can scrape together. His mom passed away two weeks ago, and he came round to thank me for helping him to attend her funeral. I could see in his eyes that things had been tough on Tommy. Although he rents a “Zozo hut” in someone’s back yard, it provides scant refuge from the elements, and the constant rain we’ve been experiencing in Johannesburg was adding to the toll he felt from the poor hand he’s been dealt. “I’m hungry boss. I’m sorry to ask you, but nobody wants to help me or talk to me”. We sit on the pavement chatting while the beautiful one goes inside to warm up some soup we had left over. With a shake of the hand, and a heartfelt thank you, Tommy eventually moves on, returning to his life in the background of society.

There are voices at my gate. I’m dressed, and I’ve poured myself a freshly brewed cup of coffee. I’m on the stoep, smoking a cigarette and sipping down on some fine tasting Kenyan java. I hear a shout, and I look up to see a man standing in the light rain, calling me over with a piece of paper in his hand. I shout from where I’m standing “What’s up buddy, what do you need?”, but he wants to engage me directly, and continues to beckon me over. So, I walk on down to the gate again, and notice that he too looks familiar. John is also without work. From the looks of things he is in his fifties, but it’s hard to tell when life has thrown you a beating, as this man before me has obviously caught. He’s been around before, and asks if I remember him. I tell him I do, but truthfully, as much as I recognise his face, I can’t recollect our previous interactions. As John starts to relate his story, my heart sinks in recognition of the emotional trauma these struggles have inflicted on him. He also walks the streets looking for piece jobs. He has a wife and three kids, and stays in Braamfischerville, a small, very poor township on the outskirts of Soweto, South West of Johannesburg. His impassioned plea for help is heart-breaking and from his story it seems as though every time he starts to get back on his feet, life flings him unceremoniously back down again. A few weeks after completing construction on his shack, it burnt down when the adjacent field caught alight, and the flames reached the plastic he used for insulation of the roof. Although he managed to save his belongings, he was unable to extinguish the flames, and is now, once again, homeless, while the rest of his family stays with relatives in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

More voices at the gate. I’m so empathetically immersed in John’s tale of woe, that I don’t even notice the arrival of Lotta, which is surprising considering he is by far the most animated of all the voices that grace my gate with their presence. This time though, Lotta is more than just animated. He is heavily inebriated, gesticulating wildly, and very obviously injured. Blood is pouring from his hand and he has clear welts on his arms and back. After grabbing him by the shoulders, and trying to get him to calm down, he finally starts to tell me what happened to him, while John looks on, not really knowing whether to stay and continue the conversation we were having, or whether to move on. Lotta relates how he’d ended up having an argument with an employee of a local petrol station who then decided it was acceptable to lay into a 52 year old, destitute street dweller with a steel pipe. His wrist is bleeding badly, his elbow is heavily swollen, and there are 3 big welts on his back, one of them open. I rush inside for the first aid kit while the beautiful one keeps him calm (not an easy task with Lotta at the best of times), and after cleaning him up, and dressing his wounds he tells me that he is going straight to the police station to lay charges of assault. Considering his drunken state, I wonder to myself how that’s going to go, but think nothing more of it, and wave him on his way. I help John out with some cash, fruit and a bottle of cold drink and he too hits the road, and for now, the voices have abated. For now.

The voices at the gate have returned. This time the sound of a young child accompanies them. I see her first, barely three years old and dressed in a bright pink Barbie t-shirt and matching shorts. When she sees me approaching shyness kicks in, and she quickly hides behind her mom’s leg, peering at me curiously as I get closer. Her mom introduces herself as Maria, and her dad Lucky steps forward and offers his hand in greeting. I greet them back, and they start to narrate what comes across as a story they’ve had to tell again and again, far too many times. Maria and Lucky are both qualified forklift drivers, and are desperately seeking any opportunity to gain employment, earn a living, and pull themselves out of the despair the family finds itself in. Although they have a roof over their heads, it’s tenuous, as they struggle to pay rent on top of keeping food on the table. So they hit the streets as often as possible, hoping to get by through the generosity of strangers (which unfortunately, according to them, is the exception rather than the rule). At this point, I’m starting to run short on tithes to spare, but I empty the old piggy bank, grab some food out the pantry, and give them what I can. I also ask Maria and Lucky to bring me their CVs when they come past again, so that if an opportunity presents itself, I can at least recommend them. They thank me, say goodbye, and once again, the voices fade away into the distance, and silence descends anew on my abode. But now it’s a depressingly melancholic silence, driven by a staggering realisation that the gap between the rich and the poor is a massive global challenge that requires immediate and ongoing attention, but the gap between poor and destitute could quite possibly be even more insurmountable.

There’s a voice at my gate. Lotta has returned, and justice has not been kind to him. He recounts how he was chased away from the police station for being too drunk (and yes, the man is positively reeking of alcohol now, and bordering on incoherent), how he’d made his way to the clinic to get his wounds seen to, and hastily chased away there as well for the same reason. I’ve been criticised by people in the past for helping Lotta, as the odds are overwhelmingly in favour of him using whatever generosity comes his way to fuel his alcoholism. These are often the same ilk of people who would think nothing of having a few beers or glasses of wine to “take the edge off a little”, no thought given to the kind of “edge” that someone like Lotta needs to have taken off. He has a Grade five education, a body and mind trampled on by years of living on the streets, a family alienated by his deprivation, and no hope of ever pulling himself out of his personal cesspool. He is a constant victim of theft and abuse, exposed to the elements all year round, and living off of the rubbish that you and I discard without giving a thought to how those things can benefit the people the world has turned its back on. You could take him in, clean him up, get him rehabilitated, and still he would end up back on the same streets that are slowly killing him. Since Human Rights Day, Lotta has visited several times, the last visit being to come and say goodbye as he was planning on killing himself. Life on the streets was too hard for him he said, and he didn’t see how we would be able to survive to 60 so that he could start collecting an old age pension. I realised that he didn’t have his radio with him, which he’s told me several times is the only thing that keeps him positive and in touch with the world. I asked him where it was, and he just shrugged and said he can’t remember. So we got in my car and I drove him into town where we managed to find an affordable small radio (small and affordable as anything bigger or fancier gets stolen every time). And even though I knew it was temporary, it was great to see a smile creep across his face again.

Since that day, the voices have not abated. I do what I can in my own small way, but it never quite feels like I’m truly helping. The temporary assistance of a smile, a chat, some food or little bits of money, combined with the recognition of someone’s humanity regardless of their station in life, is a lot more than what most members of our indigent population receive when interacting with their fellow citizens. More often than not we look away and avoid eye contact, hoping that the voices will fade away of their own accord. “Go away and go and bother someone else”, we think to ourselves. “I’ve got problems of my own”, or “That person isn’t my responsibility”, or “Can’t the government just help these people”. And with every thought in that direction, we erode a little more of our own humanity.

I don’t believe we’ve come close to understanding, let alone solving a problem that is not just global, but spans throughout the ages. Pushing for an equality of outcome, as espoused by so many in a society plagued by the “I’m offended” syndrome doesn’t seem viable to me. If you are more talented, and work harder than your competitor, or even if you’re not as talented but are more dedicated than anyone else (in any field be it sport, education, business, etc.), then you should most certainly receive greater reward. The focus should never be on pulling certain groups back down to the median, but rather on levelling the playing field, and attempting to pull everyone up a few notches. Some experts believe that policy changes such as universal income, equality in opportunity and a free market with uninhibited prospects are bureaucratic foundations that can move us towards a solution. And as desirable as these outcomes are, I believe that all of those changes will prove to be purely cosmetic without a fundamental shift in the way we view, relate to, empathise with, and love our fellow travellers on this beautiful journey, and the respect we demonstrate for the biodiversity surrounding us, the rock we hurtle through space pressed against, and the greater universe that our spark shines in. Follow a mantra of “Love all and respect everything”, tempered by loving yourself first and foremost.

As individuals we sometimes feel that our contribution is small and insignificant, but remember, together we are legion, for we are many. Don’t let the voices at your gate go unanswered. Be the change you wish to see in society.

“She calls out to the man on the street, ‘Sir, can you help me?
It’s cold and I’ve nowhere to sleep, is there somewhere you can tell me?’

He walks on, doesn’t look back. He pretends he can’t hear her
Starts to whistle as he crosses the street. Seems embarrassed to be there.

Oh think twice, it’s another day for you and me in paradise
Oh think twice, ’cause it’s just another day for you,
You and me in paradise”

Phil Collins – Another Day in Paradise
Author – Paul van der Struys