It is a gorgeous Spring Day in Johannesburg. I am sitting on my desk doing some work. As usual I am juggling my pastoral responsibilities and trying to keep up to date with my studies. On this particular day I am reading my African Philosophy textbook and making notes. I am engrossed in an intense article on the philosophy of Negritude and its relevance to present day Francophone African philosophical endeavours. I am grappling with the writings of the likes of Cesaire, Senghor and Frantz Fanon.
A young man walks into our church building and takes a seat right next to my desk where I am working. His name is Macson. He is from Malawi. He came to South Africa looking for a better life, more opportunity. Yet here he is sitting next to me looking tired and worn out. Only a week ago he and a mate of his called Sylvester had walked in on me, whilst I was doing a microeconomics assignment.
“Pastor, please pray for us. We are in desperate need of employment. We have tried every avenue. We have been waking up everyday going to look for work and so far nothing has opened up for us. We are tired of sitting around with nothing to do.” I look at these two young men, both from Malawi, who came to South Africa with a hope for a better life. They are not your stereotypical lazy, lethargic poor person with an entitlement mentality. They genuinely want to work. They are willing to do anything just so they can have enough money to put food on the table. I turn around and encourage them not to give up, not to throw in the towel. All it takes for things to turn around in life is just one moment, one breakthrough, and one person believing in you, one door opening. Yet what do I know? From the comfort of my desk, with plans for a future in academia and in politics, how much can I identify with these people? I promise them that I will pray for them and they duly get up, smile and promise to come back to me with a report on their progress in finding a job.
So here sits Macson in front of me, a week after this encounter, ready to give an update on his employment status. I ask him why he wasn’t at church this past Sunday. He tells me he and his mate were out “marketing” for a job on Sunday morning so he couldn’t come to church. “Marketing” means a group of men, sitting on the side of the road at a particular spot where bakkies frequently come through to pick up a few guys for some kind of casual, manual labour. “Piece jobs” they call it. There are literally tens, if not hundreds of thousands of men and women who are living like this in Diepsloot. This is a way of life for them. They are not educated. They are not “skilled”. They are in Fanon’s famous words the”wretched of the earth.”
I look at Macson. I ask him if he had any success finding a “piece” job on Sunday. He says a few other men were picked up for these odd jobs but he and his mate Sylvester had no luck. No one picked them up. Being in a philosophical state I begin to ask myself many questions. What kind of world is it that accepts the plight of Macson and millions of others as normal? What kind of God creates a world where billions of people are stuck in a life of survival, just trying to get by? What kind of lives are we living where things like these no longer move us? Only a few days back I had been at a wedding at the Westcliff hotel where a mate of mine and his sweetheart where getting married. The food was sumptuous, the wine was flowing. The conversation was about recent business trips to Europe. The women were all commenting on the beauty of the groom’s speech, his touching, moving speech quoting Yeats et al. The best man gave a grand speech quoting Shakespeare. The couple was about to leave for Thailand the next day to go on honeymoon. Everything was pure bliss. We ate, we drank, we talked about the markets, we laughed, we danced and we wondered who would be next in line for marriage.
Could there be two more different worlds? Is this what it means to live in a liberated South Africa? Of course it dawns on me that all these questions and all this philosophising is of no help to Macson. He needs a job, not my socio-economic reflections. I remember the millions of conversations that I have had with my middle-class friends in the comfort of their lounges or a restaurant, of course over a glass of wine, on the poverty problem facing South Africa. I realise how easy it is to theorise and philosophise and how difficult it is to be on the front-line, faced with immediate need and increasing desperation. Can we ever change the status quo? Whilst the minority spend holidays in Europe and spend weekends drinking whisky and smoking Cuban cigars, the majority struggle along, trying to make ends meet. Has anything changed really except the fact that we have a smaller group of a darker colour who can enjoy the benefits of “liberated” South Africa? Was it realistic to expect anything to change at all given the lessons of history? What is freedom anyway?
Can people be said to be free when they have to sell their souls in order to get money? Is there any freedom in being free to go wherever you want and to pursue whatever career you want, as long as you have the money to do so? What about the millions who don’t? Where is their freedom? Surely a country with millions of Macsons, both South African born and from outside the country, cannot claim to be truly free?
I look at Macson sitting next to me, totally oblivious to all that is happening inside my head. I give him the numbers of someone I know who may be able to help him get some kind of job. He smiles at me, gets up and thanks me for the help I am giving him. I smile back aware that there is no guarantee that my contact will be able to help him out. Even if that happens, what about the hundreds of thousands of Macsons who are living in Diepsloot who have no one to help them yet are willing to work? The experts often accuse them of being lazy; policies are often drawn to address their plight. Conferences are held in their honour: concepts developed to discuss their condition: Sustainable development, Live Aid, Make-poverty-history, Millennium Development Goals, Summits and academic papers. None of this has a direct bearing on the Macsons of this world.
Macson says his good-byes and leaves me to my philosophising. I decide to put aside my philosophy readings for now and to reflect further on these issues. Of course I have been through this whole process before. On a daily basis we get people walking into our church building, desperate for employment, for any job just so they can make a living. Of course the economic analysts and the intellectual elites have some “understanding” of this. They talk about recessions, interest rate cuts and growth rates. This is their understanding of the plight of the Macsons of this world.
I begin to wonder if this is what our celebrated heroes fought for all these years: A country like every other, with elites living in the lap of luxury whilst the majority await their salvation. I wonder why people place so much trust in other individuals to deliver them in any case. It makes no sense to me. How can the world I live in be content to punt the merits of an economic system which has left so many destitute, which has made objects out of people? Of course the fact that the proposed alternative had suffered such a spectacular failure will be thrown to me as evidence that this system is currently the best, yet the evidence of human misery and casualisation of labour speaks a different message to me.
It is a strange country we live in. Opulence mixed with dire poverty. Of course this is not a new thought. You don’t have to be academically inclined to see this vast discrepancy. Can the gap between the Macsons of this world and those who are “living it up” ever be closed? Is it reasonable to expect this gap to be closed? All these questions bother me but what frustrates me even more is the fact that I don’t have the answers. Maybe Darwin was right: it is all about the fittest surviving. This would certainly explain to me the kind of world we are in at the moment. The poor are nowhere. They rarely, if ever, receive any justice. They are on the periphery of society. Decisions are taken on their behalf without any consultation. The world runs and leaves them still ambling along. Of course in all of this I am not glorifying the poor. There is nothing noble and upright about poor people either. They are just as greedy, self-centred and selfish as the wealthy. They also love money and will do anything for it, just like the rich. Yet none of this can justify the kind of conditions that we have accepted as normal for most South Africans to live in.
I am struggling to make sense of a world where there are billions of Macsons, living from hand to mouth, battling every day just to make ends meet. Where is the sense in all this? All our learning, all our enterprise, all our discussion papers and documents, all our academic pursuits and conferences have produced a world that is more unequal now than it has ever been. Every attempt to change the status quo throughout history has failed spectacularly. Religion hasn’t been able to solve the problem. Politics hasn’t fared any better. It begs the question why? Why all the endeavour? Why all the false hope? I was just wondering.
A country full of migrant labourers. A continent full of Macsons. Men and women for whom life holds no pleasures except for blood, sweat and toil. What was it all about anyway, this highly celebrated liberation? It definitely wasn’t as grand as we all expected. Will the “wretched” of the earth ever have any respite? Are these questions of any benefit to the Macsons of this world? I was just wondering. In an age where hope is highly celebrated and opportunity is scarcely created what future is there for Macson and his ilk? I wish I knew where all these questions are leading. I wish there was something I could do for every Macson of this world. We know there are many in all corners of the world, especially Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa. We know all this yet seem incapable of doing anything about it. I have looked to history for some semblance of hope and yet even there I found no reference point.
We live in a world that has little if any regard for the weak. They are left to fend for themselves in a world of vultures and self-absorbed individuals. What kind of legacy are we going to leave behind for future generations? What kind of dream inspires most South Africans? These are all things which should concern us as South Africans. The world needs a new value system to come out of Africa. Africa needs to bequeath a new economic system to the world: one that cares for the marginalised of society and yet does not degenerate into state sponsored socialism.