A friend of mine once did a study which found that your income level is the greatest predictor of your economic view. He found that people who earn over a certain amount per month almost exclusively believed the key to dealing with poverty is to increase the size of the pie, while people who earned under a certain amount almost exclusively believed that in order to address poverty, the pie needs to be more equally divided. In other words, our view of solutions to the economic challenges we face is more likely determined by self interest than hard facts. I have found this very interesting in my informal conversations with friends from the suburbs. They keep telling me that the key to dealing with poverty is to create economic growth. My friends on the margins, however, are often quick to complain about how much bosses earn and wonder why they can't just share some of their wealth.
Theologian Robert McAfee Brown once said “where you stand will determine what you will see; whom you stand with will determine what you hear; and what you see and hear will determine what you say and how you act." Living in the Hillbrow among the most vulnerable in society, while attending a church in the suburbs among the wealthiest in society, means that I often get to hear these two worldviews - sometimes on the same day! Both sets of friends are able to argue their view-points vigorously.
Pope Francis recently said, “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
I think he states it well. South Africa, 20 years into our democracy, is a case in point. Between 1994 and 2013, South Africa enjoyed positive economic growth in all but two of the 78 quarters. The 76 quarters of economic growth are the longest South Africa has enjoyed since the Reserve Bank started keeping statistics. Despite this, between 1994 and 2006, the number of people living below US$ 1 per day doubled. We now have 57% of South Africans living in extreme poverty. As a backdrop to these statistics, and perhaps the explanation as to what has happened to the additional money in our economy, the Gini coefficient (measure of inequality) has increased from 0.55 in 1994 to 0.77 in 2013. South Africa overtook Brazil as the most unequal society in the world in 2009. The increase in economic growth has therefore not led to addressing poverty, but rather to the rich getting richer, while the poor have got poorer.
Living where I do, I often get to see the devastating effects of poverty and its bedfellow injustice. Over the last two years I have mourned with a close friend who lost her baby after being turned away from a local clinic. This clinic I am told has one of the highest infant-mortality rates in the world. I remember helping to carry the lifeless body of this little-10-month old baby girl to the private hearse we arranged after failing to obtain assistance from the state, as the mom begged for a living and did not have money to pay for a private burial. We fought on the phone for over 2 hours with the police who would not send out a hearse as the baby had died of natural causes. We got money together and paid for a private hearse to take the body. I remember how at the funeral of the baby I had to rush out to buy clothes for the little baby as her clothes had been stolen at the mortuary and it was going to be an open casket funeral. I remember how a year later, this same mom had another baby, who died a day after complications with the umbilical cord during labour while waiting at the local fire station for 4 1/2 hours for the ambulance to arrive. I have mourned with a mom who lost her 20 year old son to HIV/ AIDS complications after he was turned away from clinics and an ambulance did not come out for 4 days. I remember sitting on a rubbish dump with this mom, chasing away rats from the body while we waited for 2 hours for the police to arrive to declare the young man dead and remove the body. Eventually we just moved the body ourselves, figuring that as he had not been officially declared dead it would not technically be breaking the law. I remember spending two hours talking a suicidal boy off a ledge and then taking him to the Hillbrow clinic emergency room where I was promised he would be admitted and cared for. My celebration was turned to mourning later that day as he ran away after being left unattended for 2 1/2 hours and jumped off a ledge down a shaft in the same building as before . He was still alive when I got there and so I called an ambulance. They eventually arrived after 4 more hours. They were too late, he was dead. I have assisted a mother who delivered her still-born-full-term baby only to be told by the social workers at the local hospital that she needed to pay R 2000 for the body to be disposed of. She was told to bring this money directly to the social worker that week or she would be arrested. This is not true - the state disposes of bodies of babies free of charge for the poor. I have assisted many children in my neighbourhood who have been kicked out of school for late or non payment of school fees. These schools have often refused to give transfer papers to children so they could attend no-fee government schools thereby violating their right to education. I have assisted homeless friends to get access to heath care because they were being chased away from the local clinic. I have had meetings with the station commander of my local police station after several of my homeless friends had been repeatedly beaten with sjamboks and batons during the regular raids that the police, metro, home-affairs and PickItUp (the city council's garbage removal service) conducted on the streets. PickItUp were included in the raids to collect all the possessions of my homeless friends - including all their documentation which they treated as trash. I have watched some of my friends have their goods confiscated by metro-police in sometimes unlawful raids of informal traders. I have written letters, phoned, and formally complained repeatedly to the local municipality about rubbish removal, sewerage leaks, repair of street lights, road collapses, police violence and discriminatory by-law enforcement in my neighbourhood. I have assisted friends during illegal evictions to get returned into their buildings. I have handed out blankets repeatedly to homeless friends after the police removed blankets from them during their winter raids. Two of the homeless community died during the snow in August two years ago after metro police removed their blankets. It is estimated that 20,000 people do heroine in Hillbrow every day. Despite this, police continue to make petty arrests of users and appear to be complicit with dealers.
Poverty is ugly! No-one should have to live facing these circumstances. Poverty excludes people. It prevents them from getting access to services. It often renders them powerless. It is unjust.
When you stand where I do, and see what I see, your views change. When you become friends with the poor, your personal economic worldview changes. Economic growth, with all its promises, has not resulted in a better life for the poorest of the poor. I can no longer remain silent in the face of ill informed opinions based on self interest which leave structural injustice intact. I can no longer accept that the poor must wait.
I am not waiting, however, for government or for a revolution, I am starting with me. I am going to be the change I want to see in the world. The economy around me is going to change. As Shane Claiborne says "When we truly discover how to love our neighbor as ourself, Capitalism will not be possible and Marxism will not be necessary." Sharing my life and my possessions does not have to wait any longer. I can now begin to live my dream of a new world. In this world, I want to experience the rich not tolerating extreme poverty and inequality. I want to see many people around me actually laying down their lives of comfort and convenience for the sake of bettering the lives of others. I want to be part of a world where seeing people freed from poverty, inequality, racism and exploitation is more important than fulfilling our lust for more things! I want to be part of a society in which people are valued more than things. I want to see the god of consumerism in South Africa bowing its knee to a love motivated revolution which results in freedom from oppression and exploitation. I want to see this for all people, regardless of class, citizenship, race or religion. I dream of equality in every sector of society. I believe that if the education system is not OK for a rich kid, it is not OK for a poor kid. The same goes for healthcare, housing, security. The same goes for rural kids and inner city kids. The same for black kids and white kids. We are not more valuable than the least valued in our society. My family are doing our lives in a new way. We are going to live our dream and see this reality briefly described above happening around us. We hope others will join us and this will happen around them too. Who knows, very soon, the world can be a different place!
A few of my friends have posted a link to this article or talked about "how amazing Maboneng, Newtown or Braamfontein is". While these areas are indeed trendy and great places to go for good coffee, they have come at a tremendous cost to the urban poor. In order to create these areas, the poor are mostly displaced to make room for "new-safer-trendy areas" in which the rich and middle class can live and play. This is called Gentrification. I would like to specifically address Gentrification and some of the comments made by inner-city property developer Mr Jonathan Liebmann through looking at this article.
Gentrification in my mind is reminiscent of the forced removals the apartheid government used to do. In Johannesburg, it has essentially meant the siding of government with a rich, economic-minority and has not been in the interests of the broader population. The partnership between government and developers to evict the poor so the rich can have trendy play areas is pernicious, ill-conceived and not sustainable. We need social housing programmes in the inner city to house the urban poor who have flocked here in search of a better life. It is now estimated that 60% of South Africans now live in urban areas. We need inner-city rejuvenation, but not the kind that is driven by these "wild-west" entrepreneurs who act primarily in the interests of larger bank balances for their investors. Rather we need rational, strategic -government and community driven development aimed at bettering the lives of the existing residents. The city MUST stop acting on the side of the rich, stop arbitrarily enforcing it's bylaws against the poor and start acting within it's mandate as part of a developmental state.
There are a number of points where I think Mr. Liebmann has completely missed it, I want to address three...
Firstly, can Mr Liebmann please show me the "huge, huge, huge oversupply" of accommodation he talks about - I have read that the inner city has a 99.7% occupancy. It took me over a year to find a flat to rent in the non-gentrified inner city of Johannesburg when I moved in. Mr Liebmann is welcome to come visit and I will show him around. He will see that due to exploitative rentals, multiple families occupy one flat. In my building, for example, which has 16 floors of 5 flats (80 flats), we have over to 700 adults residing - this is an average of 8.75 adults per flat (or an average of 4 families per flat. My building, while far from perfect, is one of the better managed in Hillbrow. The only way Mr. Liebmann can see there being an oversupply is because he does not see the poor as people. I have watched YouTube videos where he (and other Inner-City developers) talk about "few could walk in the inner city" before they came, and how "there are 'only' criminals on the streets". Actually the number of people on the streets, where their new developments are currently housed, has mostly decreased, not increased. Due to the extreme demand for low cost housing, the so called "abandoned buildings are currently filled with people. Thats right Mr Liebmann et al - the poor are people. And while criminality is indeed high in these areas, to label all the residents as "criminals", is ill informed, evil and based on prejudice - prejudice that belongs in another era, just like your and the City's inner-city rejuvenation plans.
Secondly, Mr Liebmann says they provide affordable accommodation at R 1300 pm which caters to "the lowest income group". Lets examine this claim: in order to afford a rental of R 1300 (which I am not sure is actually readily available anyway) a person needs to earn R 3900. The problem is half the households currently living in the inner city earn less than R3200 a month, which in effect means they have to share a flat in a building like mine. This means even this so called "affordable" accommodation (if available) is not affordable to over 50% of South Africans.
A third erroneous point where the author of the article is clearly confused is that he thinks he can just get private security to evict people and getting court orders to evict people is is something only the state needs to do... section 26 (3) of the Constitution explicitly prohibits any eviction without a court order. This thus applies to both the state and to private property owners. Mr Liebmann - you are not above the constitution!
I believe we need to find new methods of financing the inner city rejuvenation required. The city, not private investors, needs to lead this to ensure the vision for an inclusive city for all is achieved.
On Saturday evening, the Hillbrow Theatre enacted a localized walk-about-Hillbrow-edition of the Passion play with some rather creative adapted parables and accounts of the life and death of Jesus. The story was tailored to reflect the struggles of the most vulnerable in our community. A brilliant scene was a recreation of the story of the woman caught in adultery. In this adapted scene, a local Hillbrow brothel (complete with young under-age girls, scantily dressed, drinking lots of liquor and accompanied by loudness) had been recreated. It was very realistic and somewhat disturbing, so much so that I found it difficult to watch. The jeering crowd's judgmentalism was challenged by love as Jesus, mischievously played by a 14 year old black girl, brought restoration and redemption to one of the girls. What struck me was how the little girl struggled to calm the crowds who were taunting at the girls at the brothel and make herself heard. It was as if no one really wanted to listen to her...
Then later in the weekend, as part of the easter celebrations, I also attended a Quaker meeting (a first for me). Quakers sit in silence and wait for God to speak. They create a space to intentionally listen in a world where we are constantly bombarded with external deafening messages. Sometimes we need to stop those voices and the loudness just to listen. As we sat in silence, I was aware of how difficult it was to listen for the voice of God due to the inner noises of my own personal struggles at the time. I was reminded of the account in 1 Kings 19 where God speaks to Elijah, not in the strong wind, or in the earthquake, or in the fire, but in a still small voice. I was very aware that we were both intentionally in a place of listening and deliberately becoming attentive to the still small voice of God. Slowly I calmed my spirit so that I could hear God speak.
I reflected on the little black girl playing Jesus in the play and how the crowds did not want to listen to her. I thought about her vulnerability in the context of power relations in my community and how hard it is generally to listen to the still small voice of the weak and vulnerable around us. We often adopt judgemental postures assigning blame on the vulnerable for their vulnerability. The noise of consumerism and individualism and self-interest also shuts out their voice. Our busyness means we do not have time to listen and our physical separation from "them" means we are often too far away to hear their soft cries of desperation.
In order to listen to those on the margins, we too need to firstly position ourselves in the right places and secondly adopt an attentive posture to listen. After all, Jesus is often reflected in the most vulnerable and invites us to meet Him in them (I was hungry... I was in prison... I was naked... I was a stranger - Mat 25). The challenge for us is to regularly leave our comfortable lifestyles, neighbourhoods and busy rhythms and go to places where we can pay attention to His still small voice heard in their still small voice.
And the take home question from all of this for me was... "I wonder what our loving Father is going to invite us into as we position ourselves, adopting a listening posture, while waiting for God to speak in the still small voice of the weak and vulnerable?"
A heartfelt cry from Ash barker on making poverty personal
We love living in Hillbrow and feel so privileged to be able to constantly enjoy community the way we do. Many friends often talk of our sacrifice (for leaving our six bedroom home in the suburbs) or of our courage (for moving into the notoriously "dangerous" Hillbrow). The paradoxical truth that many don't get is that when you lay down your life and give away your life you come alive. Purposeful living is found in sacrificial giving. Sharing your possessions and life with your community is the doorway to a life filled with love.
The truth is laying down our lives is largely about laying down our fears. Fear prevents us from living the life we dream of. The best way to overcome fear is through developing love - when we develop loving relationships with those on the margins, we find the "sacrifice factor" dissipates. When we sacrifice because we love we find deep joy is released and soon we are not living a life of sacrifice, but a life of love.
Imagine a South Africa where we all truly loved, shared and cared for one another!
It's Friday... but Sunday is comin' - S.M. Lockridge's
Jesus is praying
Peter’s a sleeping
Judas is betraying
But Sunday’s comin’
The council is conspiring
The crowd is vilifying
They don’t even know
That Sunday’s comin’
The disciples are running
Like sheep without a shepherd
Mary’s crying Peter is denying
But they don’t know
That Sunday’s a comin’
The Romans beat my Jesus
They robe him in scarlet
They crown him with thorns
But they don’t know
That Sunday’s comin’
See Jesus walking to Calvary
His blood dripping
His body stumbling
And his spirit’s burdened
But you see, it’s only Friday
The world’s winning
People are sinning
And evil’s grinning
The soldiers nail my Savior’s hands
To the cross
They nail my Savior’s feet
To the cross
And then they raise him up
Next to criminals
But let me tell you something
The disciples are questioning
What has happened to their King
And the Pharisees are celebrating
That their scheming
Has been achieved
But they don’t know
It’s only Friday
He’s hanging on the cross
Feeling forsaken by his Father
Left alone and dying
Can nobody save him?
Ooooh It’s Friday
But Sunday’s comin’
The earth trembles
The sky grows dark
My King yields his spirit
Hope is lost
Death has won
Sin has conquered
and Satan’s just a laughin’
Jesus is buried
A soldier stands guard
And a rock is rolled into place
But it’s Friday
It is only Friday
Sunday is a comin’!
Lets make sure that this winter we remember the homeless in our city. At the end of this month, buy some extra blankets, beanies, scarves, gloves... wait for a cold night and then conspire with some friends to go make some new friends, friends who are homeless or really need some of your TLC... take peanut butter sandwiches, or cook a meal to share, be creative. Sit down and share a meal together. Dont go to lecture, go to listen. Ask questions... get to know the person... ask their story, share your story... go back and visit again... become friends... Do all you do in love...
Then go and post your story on our facebook page pr use the hashtag #MyBlanketStory on twitter.
We had coffee today with a man (and his brother) who was sent to prison (and spent 9 years there) for a crime he says he did not commit. He has now been out of prison for 9 years. While awaiting trial in prison he met a mutual friend Colin Bompas who all those years back attended all of his court appearances, visited him, encouraged him, stood by him, discipled him, and has remained close friends to him all these years. This man regards Colin as a father to him. I was so encouraged listening to his story of Colin's long term faithful commitment to Christ. The man also shared he how has come to accept the gross injustice against him, learned from it and integrated it into his own story. There were so many life lessons in the story. Thank you Colin for suggesting we meet #NoBitterness #RacialReconciliation #TrueChristianity#Perserverance #Forgiveness #Faithfullness