Mandela is everywhere in South Africa. I’m not just talking about his eternal presence in the national psyche. Rather I refer to the many statues, photos and memorials which have materialised since my previous visit two and a half years ago. As expected, he has seemingly become more revered posthumously. I have written many times about the way his life so inspired my own views but today* it feels even more appropriate when tackling the issue of inequality as part of Blog Action Day 2014.
I spend so much of my life thinking about ending poverty and talking to others about how much I believe this can be achieved. If I am perfectly honest, a trip to South Africa always knocks my confidence. The high walls, barbed wire, security systems and guard dogs are symbolic of the gross inequality; the stark divide between rich and poor. People go to great lengths to hide their beautiful sprawling homes from sight, lest it attract attention from those who believe the only way out of their own poverty is to take from the rich. In many places grand homes look out over squatter camps which house thousands of people in utter squalor. Is this the South Africa which Mandela gave his life to transform?
There is always one person who finally breaks my resolve not to become disheartened. This time it was an old man who stands on the same street corner each day in Walmer, Port Elizabeth. He looks like he must be about 75-years-old and he approaches cars holding a laminated sign that says GOOD RELIABLE PAINTER. On the verge are his supplies for the day: a worn out jacket and a tub of paint. No packed lunch or water. Looking at him, I finally began to cry over the plight of the millions living in conditions that no human should endure. I could feel the anger rise at the injustice that this man had absolutely no choice over the circumstances into which he was born. Just as I, born into privilege, had no control over mine. Why is it that I should be so fortunate? I can only put it down to one reason: that I am to use my good fortune to help those who are stuck in a cycle of poverty with no means to help themselves.
Witnessing inequality does not need to be a discouragement. In fact, once I had pulled myself together and found a crumpled tissue in my handbag to wipe my eyes, I became more determined to take action against the prevailing injustice of poverty. During my two-week visit I heard so many stories of individuals making a difference in South Africa by trying to alleviate the suffering of others in their own small way: a music quiz night to raise funds for organisations who work in townships, churches who collect household goods to give to those who have almost nothing, a family member who paid their domestic worker sick leave for 6 weeks when no law in the country required them to do so. Maybe these are all just a drop in the ocean but is the ocean not made up of many drops?
Despite the inequality which I know prevails on a global scale, I am positive that we can live in a world where everyone is given the opportunity of a better life, a shot at happiness. As Mandela wrote in a letter on 1 August 1977, “Social equality is the only basis of human happiness.” Extreme inequality on the economic scale robs people of their potential as human beings. Rather than simply look the other way, what can you do today to balance the scales?
*I realise I am a day late but I figured the subject matter was too important to miss the opportunity to write about