Saturday, January 18, 2014

Off the side of my head ... *

There is a bit of a public debate raging at the moment, over the controversial treatment on camera of people in an economically challenged area of Birmingham and how they all seem to be on the dole etc. etc.  It’s called ‘Benefit Street’ and aired on Channel 4 here.

There’s a diatribe about it over here
and a bit more balanced stuff here

No, I haven’t seen the television programme – yet.  It’s available On Demand so I might just have the stomach to watch it in coming days or weeks.  I’m not commenting about the programme, I’m commenting about something I read in one of the reviews about the show – drawing attention to the fact that a person was selling sachets of washing powder to earn a living, someone else was selling scrap metal.   

Far from being lazy or passive, the residents of James Turner Street are shown trying desperately to lift themselves out of the rut of poverty — albeit by rather dubious means.
One tries to sell metal for scrap; another sells sachets of washing powder on the street. You might not approve of the means, but you can understand the ambition.
"albeit by rather dubious means"  Why is the journalist drawing so many negative connotations to the fact that these people are trying to be entrepreneurial?

In Africa – where I come from, let’s be honest here I haven’t lived through the Welfare System in the UK long enough to be called British – there is rampant starvation, crime, joblessness, graft, opportunism and the indomitable entrepreneurial spirit.   If you don’t work for someone, or work for yourself in Africa (read, South Africa) you quite literally DIE.  The State doesn’t give a flying fuck about your predicament, whether you’re White, Black, Asian, Coloured, German, from Mars … makes no difference.   

Oh ja, there is UIF – which you can only claim if you’ve actually been working for a while and paid contributions.  The amount you get from UIF is an arbitrary sum worked out by some convoluted Boer-war era abacus  - i.e. it makes no sense, it’s unfathomable and you can’t query why you only got R3,000 this month but last month you got R5,200 (my example).   It’s ripe with corruption.  I personally know of at least three people who have claimed UIF by sending a proxy with their form – handing it in to an agent In The Street Outside the UIF offices.  The agent didn’t bother to check the authenticity / identity of the person handing in the form, I.e. whether the person matched up with the information on the form, nothing …

The amount of people who are getting State benefits for children (that aren't theirs), the disabled (who are perfectly fit) or via UIF (that are working) or who are actually DEAD is ludicrous and an ongoing joke.   You cannot survive on State benefits in Africa, full stop.

So what to do?  Well in the New South Africa, all sorts of NON-JOBs were created, specifically to try and sweep under the carpet the embarrassingly high number of souls who were unemployed.  This has resulted in ‘car guards’ at supermarket parking lots, ‘packers’ at supermarkets (“plasteek” she says, grabbing your groceries and putting them in the bag for you, like you are somehow incapable of doing this yourself), ‘trolley guards’ who try to take over your trolley as you leave the supermarket to wheel the groceries to your car … they don’t even know where you’ve parked but it doesn’t stop them marching off at a rate of knots into the general parking area.  When they find your vehicle, they then start loading the bags into your car, chucking the dog food on top of the eggs and all the while checking what you’ve bought, doing a quiet mental calculation.  Then they stand back with hand out, waiting for you to give them a ‘tip’ – the gratuitous R2 (with inflation, this has now gone up to R5).  Why on earth do you need this kind of assistance?  It is harassment and one of the things I was so glad to see the back of when we left South Africa.  I was heartily sick and tired of dodging car guards in the supermarket parking lot.

Other African entrepreneurial ideas include:

  • Washing windows at the side of the road – which reached epidemic proportions in Randburg at one time, prompting the cops to come along and shoo all the windscreen washers away.   Nine times out of ten, these guys are only scoping out your car, trying to see what they can nick when you open the window to tell them to ‘fuck off and leave my car alone!’.   
  • Mahala (stuff for free) ‘gifts’ that hawkers try to force through your window at intersections.   If you take the pen, lighter or whatever else they try and shove onto you, they will then demand R5 … ‘aish meddam I’m hungry, I need money for brade’ … all the while, the chap is eyeing the contents of your car, where your hand bag is, your cellphone and as soon as you drive off, he’s on his Android dialling up his hi-jacking mate to take you out at the next intersection. (This has happened to me twice, so I’m speaking from first hand experience). 
  • Sitting on the side of the road, or on the island at traffic ‘lights’ (robots) with a small baby, in the burning African sun at midday, with your hand out pleading to all the White meddams as they drive past in their Sophisticated Recreational Vehicles for money for the baby.  Meantime, the woman has actually HIRED that child from a mum back in the township for R20 for the day.  
  • The millions of hawkers who set up shop on the side of the road, anytime, anywhere, selling anything from plug-in car chargers to blankets.  
  • The blind beggars, lead by a younger female or male, wandering up and down shaking a tin at your car.   There is one lady (I don't know if she's still alive) that we used to see every time we went to Criminal Records Centre in Pretoria central, who would sit outside the multi-story parking garage on her blanket, banging her tin ... 'clink-clank ... clink-clank ... clink-clank' like a metronome the WHOLE DAY!  
  • The people who walk up to you in supermarkets with scraps of paper written in sign-language ... mouthing that they need money to get a taxi home (most of these scam artists are White men around the age of 30 to 40).  
  • There are a lot of people in South Africa who prey on the collective White-guilt psyche and milk it for all its worth.   Very rarely do you see Black people helping Black people at intersections (for example), the Black mums in their Mercs and BMW's are the first to wind up the electronic windows and stare stonily ahead.  

Amongst all the scam-artists at intersections and alongside the roads, there are people who are really battling and trying to make things better for their family.   So you technically CAN'T lump all these people together in the criminal opportunism mould.  There are many people who really want to earn some money, for themselves. 

Take the garage attendants for example. For all this is a NON-JOB, there are men (very few women do this work) who get up at 4am to travel for two and a half hours each day by taxi and on foot to get to work by 6.30 to man the pumps at BP, or Shell for a minimum wage.  Leaving the garage sometimes at 8pm at night, only getting home when their family are asleep, to start the whole thing off a couple of hours later.   These people are proud of their jobs, work hard, always have a smile on their faces and are courteous and funny (most of the time) – I have nothing but respect for people like them.

So you British-centric journalists stop knocking people who are trying to make a living by selling washing powder in sachets to the community, nine times out of ten, they are trying to be entrepreneurial.

*Might become a regular mini-coloumn of ranting on this Blog

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