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The Problem of Poverty

Updated on December 12, 2018
Hungry children in the "township", East London.
Hungry children in the "township", East London. | Source
Informal Settlement, Parkside, East London
Informal Settlement, Parkside, East London | Source
Trying to make ends meet.
Trying to make ends meet. | Source

Dealing with the problem of poverty

Helping the poor – a difficult task

In Africa and in South Africa in particular we are faced with the huge problem of poverty. A drive through any of the so called “townships” will bring one face to face with many who battle to survive. In most places there are a variety of different economic areas. Some areas are extremely poor and others more “middle class” and even up market. Most people who live in the previous “whites only” suburbs, never even enter into these disadvantaged areas and so are blissfully unaware that they even exist. Here sewage often runs down the street. Rubbish is dumped next to the road and left there to rot. Children run around in the streets when they should be at school and young mothers carry another baby on their back. The nearby Shebeens are frequented by members of the local population who often watch local football games there.

It is always interesting to drive through these areas because the people seem to have learnt to cope in these obviously testing circumstances. Often there are smiles on the faces of many as they go on their way. However under the surface and often waiting to erupt is another side. With unemployment running at over 50% it is obvious that many people in these areas will never be able to find work. The lines of men who wait outside hardware stores in town are evidence of this sad situation. In another area, lines of women sit on their makeshift “chairs” (empty 20 liter containers) hoping that someone will arrive to offer them a day’s work for about R120 ($8). Most return home day after day with the bad news that again they bring no food. There is a great spirit of support in these areas and often those who have only a little will share with those who have nothing. Child grants and old age pensions often are the only incomes that keep families alive.

Economic growth with many new jobs is the obvious and only answer. A reduction in the birth rate is another important challenge, but in a country were monthly child grants are given to the poor for each child, this is not likely to happen. In South Africa, as in many other African countries, we have for years exported our raw materials and then bought back the finished products, firstly from England, and then in more recently times, from Japan, India and China. That situation seems to continue today with no noticeable change.

So what do we as “ordinary” South Africans, do about it? There are many in this country, from all the different race groups, who live comfortable lives. We send our children to the best schools that we can afford, live in comfortable suburbs and drive reliable cars. We go on holiday to the coast, game reserves and even overseas once a year. The recent boom in up market shopping malls is evidence that there is money to spend. It is not that we do not care about the poor. It is rather that we don’t know where to even start. The problem is either invisible or just too big, and so we wring our hands in despair and continue to live our lives with their own challenges…

At the same time the poor, from their desperate existence, look at those who live in comfort and hope that somehow the fairy godmother (the government) will wave her magic wand and transform them from their poor township citizens to a Cinderella existence in the suburbs. New political parties pop up with this unrealistic promise that is unfortunately another fairy tale. When business does boom, corruption often sticks out its ugly head and the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. Taxes and inflation continue to take its toll. A 4% increases at the bottom level is much different to 4% at the top. Increase in petrol prices mean more income for government but this money goes into the pockets of the haves and seldom reaches the have-nots.

There are, however, a couple of options that those who have, can do to help the situation. Often it is easier to leave and live in a first world country were such absolute poverty in not present. At least that means a decline in the population of the country you leave, if only a small one. The trouble with that, is that it is often those with much needed expertise that leave and are welcomed into other countries.

Another option is to look for opportunities to do something to produce jobs. Unfortunately our education system in the past and present has done very little, if anything, to encourage this and so our exporting of raw materials and buying back finished products seems likely to continue. But if those with vision and training start new manufacturing businesses it will bring positive results.

But what about you and me, the “just ordinary people”? Fortunately there are many who care enough to take the initiative and help somewhere. Instead of making the usual excuses to still their consciences, they look carefully at their own area and ask the question: “what can I do?” Assist someone with their education, start adult literacy classes, help to feed those who are hungry, support a children’s home, and so on and on I could go. The only limit we have is our own lack of initiative. The problem in Africa and also here in South Africa, is so big in that we are tempted to think there is nothing we can do, and so we, in fact, do nothing. What a sad situation! I can hear another child crying because they have no food tonight. Do you hear it?


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