Our series of articles, The Outsiders, is an in depth look at people living on the street in South Africa and has so far explained with examples and references, how they survive and their interplay with different factors including the criminal element and the authorities (in many cases no better than the criminals they are supposed to apprehend). With only minor changes, it holds true for those surviving on the street in most countries globally, even those with social systems in place to ensure adequate survival for those most visibly in need. With the harsh reality they face daily, humour and absurdity abound because like all of us, they embody the attributes we display that make us human. Joy and laughter are not uncommon among them. The journalists of The International Outsider have spent more than a decade not only interacting but quite often living among them as one of them. This allowed us to gather firsthand knowledge and information while building their trust, which we went to great lengths not to betray. This ensured that no area of their lives was a closed door and enabled us to enter confidently as observers in the criminal activities many of them indulged in to survive and their daily struggle to survive by whatever means they could.
One of the most easily recognised ways for them to obtain help is through the charities and NGO/NPO’s (Non-Governmental Organisations and Non Profit Organisations) who abound and are being added to constantly. Yes, like the public face they present, some of them do provide real help with food distribution, clothing, blankets, and legal advice. There are even some churches who aid the needy of all faiths but most religious organisations restrict their help to those of their own denomination, parishioners, or through occasional outreach programmes where they provide soup and bread and distribute blankets, though mainly in the winter months. The ‘Soup Kitchen’ is big in South Africa as a way of feeding those in need as it is very cost effective needing only bread and the soup (usually a tasteless concoction based on vegetables with a smattering of meat, which gives momentary relief to hunger pains) and transport to the location where it is given out. However, it looks very good and gives positive publicity to those handing it out.
All the major charities, NGO’s, and NPO’s receive regular consignments of food either about to reach its sell by date or on it, from supermarkets, food outlets (some really small) and warehouses where often the need for space for further goods to be held prior to distribution forces them to clear some of the racks. They also receive large amounts of corporate sponsorship-good for the image-not just financially but with clothing, blankets, tools, machinery, saleable medium value (ZAR 10,000.00) items, buildings and land. Additionally,all types of vehicles whose servicing and insurance/road tax costs are met by the sponsor are given with the name of the charity etc. and the sponsor’s name highlighted (but not too prominently) on the vehicles. All this largesse is supposed to be distributed under supervision to targeted areas of communities who are disadvantaged and deprived with special regard to those living on the street, who are on the bottom rung. The truth of the matter is somewhat different.
The problem with many of the charities (even the long established ones) is that their prime focus is not on those in need but how to increase and maintain their income stream. The recipients of their help are the means which are needed to gain the income but there are costs that must be met in running the ‘charity’. The figures can be extraordinarily high with chief executives of even fairly small charities earning salaries in excess of ZAR 180, 00.00 and very large ones like Oxfam earning 124,000.00 Pounds Sterling (ZAR 2, 48 million) per annum. Included must be the package of benefits from pensions, travel, expenses, and living costs as well as school/university costs and more. Therefore the amount of actual hard cash spent on those who are the reason for the charity’s existence can at times be fairly small because of ‘overheads’ and ‘running costs’. In some cases, especially locally, the amount spent on those in need can be as little as 30%.Though many of them have no ulterior motives and so sell what they receive to fund their operations, still not much of it seems to visibly make its way to those in need. For some of the ‘helping’ providers, something far from rare in South Africa, the best food goes home with them as do electronic items and in some cases, the clothing as often it is good high quality brands from companies leading the market in visibility. This is seen as a perk. The often quite blatant misuse of the funds generated seldom leads to investigations or prosecutions, which begs the question ‘are the authorities overseeing these organisations incompetent or are they turning a blind eye or receiving recompense?’
We personally had the experience of a family with three children who had asked for help from a charity in Kempton Park (now closed) when both parents lost work due to company closure. Both adults were proficient and employable, the father as a skilled metalworker and the mother as a receptionist. If the charity had helped them, they were not only very keen to work but could have been assisted to find employment. Instead, they were given minimal food and basic shelter in return for agreeing (on paper) that the male adult for 6 days a week and the female adultfor 3 days a week, would go onto the street at selected places(chosen by the charity) and beg on a daily basis. Whatever they were given was for the charity entirely and the children were told to clean the premises and work tilling the vegetable garden, if they were not at school and on weekends. Washing was by shower with the hot water limited to 3 minutes and all 3 children told to bathe together, neither acceptable nor decent as they were a 14-year-old girl, and two boys, one 12 and the other 9. Meals like breakfast were toast, tea, and some jam while dinner was potatoes and vegetables with a smidgeon of meat twice a week. This, despite the charity having rooms filled with dried and canned goods and seven large freezers filled with meat. We tracked the sale of much of this food to retailers and food preparation outlets like small restaurants and the money received did not appear to be included in the accounts. The final undoing of this ’charity’ was when they were given a 4x4, a one year old ‘bakkie’, a speedboat, jet skis, and other items and the donors asked to see the accounts . The couple running the charity organisation closed shop and left to live in Ireland with their daughter. They were not heard from again. We found temporary (eight months) housing for the family and helped the father get a part time job, which though low paid, helped them survive with the children’s grants from the government and regular food parcels from different organisations, one of which was the Catholic Church who helped even though the beneficiaries were not of the faith. Schooling was arranged through the Council and various other quasi official bodies and help with school clothes came from private individuals who kindly supplied the necessary items.
The charity organisations who receive funding from the South African government are for the most part both inept and partially corrupt. Despite getting millions of Rand in funds and having empty properties,which could be used to house the homeless or generate an income if let, very little is done for those most in need. It is mostly a short term fix with no long term plan in place to prevent the continuous cycle of deprivation and degrading poverty. Apart from the highly visible events and outreach programmes for public consumption, very few significant long term changes are put in place as they appear to focus on collecting their salaries and ‘perks’ doing the minimum necessary to fulfil their statutory obligations.
Using religion to preach to a captive audience who are hungry and waiting to be fed/helped is the norm for most of the ‘helping hands’ who aid those on the street. Though many of the street people profess to be religious, they object to the enforced preaching and even if they complain about it privately afterwards, none will openly broach the subject for fear of being refused food or expelled from the gathering. For many of the people living on the street, the weekly round of places where they will receive food and/or help (most often a polystyrene cup of soup and 4 slices of brown bread) is the only food they will consume in a week. The enormity of the scale of the battle to survive hourly and daily is overwhelming as many will have to contend with no income if begging produces nothing (not at all unusual) and finding somewhere safe to sleep. Many used to sleep outside police stations and well lit areas but due to the pandemic and the sheer numbers of those now on the street, most of these options are no longer available either being fenced off or patrolled by security guards. This means sleeping in an out of the way spot (hopefully undetected) as large groups mean theft and robbery are more common by members of the group. Churches do not allow those they happily preach to and sometimes feed or help to occupy their land at night for a secure place to sleep. Part of the problem is the criminal element especially the heavy drug users among the street people whose ethos seems to be ‘steal it, take it or gain it, no matter what the consequences’. This affects all those others in the same position without the constant drive to feed a habit and means they are all tarred with the same brush, which closes many doors to them, doors of groups, organisations, and individuals who genuinely want to help and will provide tangible aid. With the economic downturn globally in part due to the measures taken to stop the spread of the virus, life on the street for those with nothing is even harder than before as two factors have impacted it even further. The members of the public who are inclined to help and do so are now mostly not in the same position financially to do so and the influx of migrants from all over Africa for pure economic reasons (mostly) is now a torrent so the competition for any available resources is even more stricken with violence and unpleasantness. Fights will break out over ZAR 2.00 (US 15 cents) as the drive to survive heats up and often occur when someone stops to hand out food from their cars to those on the street.
The families with children and couples face other problems that single people do not. Most ‘charities’ separate the men and women (who stay with the children) into different accommodation with the men sleeping in barrack type rooms so the family groups are split up. It is understandable given the excess of sexual assaults, abuse, and rape that occur daily in South Africa that the genders are separated by those providing shelter but this should not be applied wholesale to families and couples as it psychologically and emotionally weakens the bonds that so often provide the necessary impetus for them to continue the struggle. In the mornings (5.30 AM) the men are moved to various locations chosen by the charity to spend the day begging for food, money, or whatever they can get. Some are sent on a round of businesses and others given areas with streets of houses to ring the gate/doorbell and ask for help. No matter what they receive, it has to go to the charity and some of the people begging with them act as spies for the charity so the organisation knows exactly what each beggar produces. If after seven to tendays of begging, the person has not produced enough, they are unceremoniously thrown back onto the street. In the meantime, the women and children clean, wash, and tidy the premises and work in the vegetable gardens as well as loading/unloading goods that arrive or have been sold. Additionally they do the washing and ironing that the charity bring in and are paid for doing by companies and members of the public. If the father is kicked out for bringing in too little, the wife and children are thrown onto the street as well. Very little is given in the way of clothing and food. Food is enough to prevent starvation and weakness being mainly bread and vegetables with tea and meat maybe twice a week. Complain and you leave. Remark on the amount the charity org. is receiving and how little help is being given to those who are the reason for its existence and teeth are bared and it’s time to leave. Many charities employ security guards for all the right reasons but some use them quite brutally to ensure compliance by those they are ‘helping’ and also keeping out those who transgress their rules. Few charities ever face legal challenges because they have the means to stretch out these matters for years, which their plaintiffs on the street do not.
The well established charities seldom deal with individuals or single families but focus on semi and large scale projects involving hundreds of people needing help and community based objectives. Those living on the street are given only the option of local helping groups, some of whom are amazing in the help they willingly provide no matter what it takes. Many are only in it for themselves as the ‘charity’ provides an income bearing employment opportunity and despite the regulations in place, very few prosecutions take place as long as the accounts appear to be in order. Among the charities, the churches provide quite large localised amounts of help, much of which is accurately targeted because of local knowledge and often the only help available from an organisation. However, some of them are purely fronts for raising and laundering money and only marginal help is given. These ‘church charities’ are very seldom closed down permanently as they produce very useful amounts of cash and South Africa is corrupt from the top down. One such ‘church’ we knew in Kempton Park had its minister (they all call themselves prophets) arrested and jailed for 20 years after being found guilty of money laundering, selling drugs, guns, and providing prostitutes. A new minister arrived and it was back to business in ten days after the arrest of the previous one. Many charities use the umbrella of religion provided by law as it accrues extra benefits like tax free status and opens the door to help from very large religious organisations, especially those in America.
It must be said that the offer of something for nothing attracts a large swathe of the public so that many employed people will stop and partake of free food or clothing etc. without any embarrassment or shame about their actions if they see it being handed out. It’s free so take it and please do not ask them why they do it as they become aggressive as if it is their right. There is a charity in Johannesburg that owns buildings in the Central Business District and has other branches around the country. Their income is measured in millions besides the 50+ million rand they get from the government and who are constantly doing highly visible ‘good works’ which achieve very little as they have only immediate or short term effect. They were caught several times over the past decade selling food that the large supermarkets donate daily and weekly but still receive the same help from these businesses. The level of food distributed is high it must be said and families and those on the street are well fed five days a week and in emergency. However, the difference between what is received and what is distributed is never explained or alluded to and the amounts raised by fund raising drives and sales of items donated does not fix with the amount expended. Running costs are high, as are salaries and benefits. They will sell you the clothing and shoes that are donated to them at a high price, which stops those with little money living on the street being able to buy them. Shoes are extremely important to people living on the street as they walk constantly to find help, food, shelter, clothes, or safety. So shoes do not last and it is not uncommon to see adults and children of all races either in broken and damaged shoes with holes in the soles or barefoot, though not through choice. This charity is very adept at publicising its ‘good deeds’ so that its image is clean and the public warm to it but the recipients of its ‘help’ give a different story, one we experienced firsthand. Their choice of descriptive words about the charity is certainly not polite. It will leave children and single mothers or women sleeping on the street rather than inside its gated and secured premises if the beds it rents out are already full. Not all street people start out being substance abusers or damaged psychologically/emotionally but are on the street because jobs were lost through business closure or contracts ended. And many who are ‘damaged’ behave impeccably obeying the rules of the place if helped when most at need like being safe when asleep. For women on the street, it is even more of a pressing factor than for the female population as a whole given the country’s appalling record of sexually based crime. The cost of a bunk bed for the night with shower included is ZAR 15.00 (US $ 1.00) but that ZAR 15 will get you food. For many on the street, the choice is simple. If you can eat, then eat. You will somehow find somewhere to sleep even if it’s not fully safe.
There are many problems faced by those in need associated with the help provided by the charities, churches, and organisations that are a lifeline for those on the street. The first problem that faces the people asking for help is the need to produce a valid identification if so asked. At a cost of ZAR 140.00 and the loss of a minimum of a day in which to ‘earn’, most have neither the money or can take the time off from trying to survive as a backup of saved cash is seldom ever available. For those needing asylum papers, the cost is even greater as it requires visiting a Home Affairs Center and often spending days there before even being able to obtain the forms to be filled in due to the numbers of applicants. Many of the ‘helpers’ or charities demand proof of identity. Secondly, not having access to a permanent address or a cell phone stops them receiving targeted and carefully calculated help on a continuing or medium to long term basis depriving them of some form of stability. Not knowing where you will spend the night let alone the day is taken as normal by those on the street, since any other option only occurs rarely if at all. So those most needing help have to rely on the handouts on either fixed days (most feeding schemes are regular on one or more days a week basis) or when they learn/hear about or happen to be in the area where the help is being handed out. It is also fair to say that the charities that are flexible about the rules sometimes get their fingers burned. Their drive to cut costs and yet appear or do something charitable, helping and empowering (not always sure that this is the case) those in need leads them into situations where they get ripped off by the very people they are helping. A reasonable number of those residing on the sidewalk are semi-skilled and often artisans, mechanics, and technicians. So the charities use their skills, cut-price of course, and the number of times they end up spending more than double to finish the job is innumerable. A white anti-depressant pill addict in his late 30’s called Hans who was fairly skilled in electrics, was employed by a Johannesburg charity to rewire part of their premises which included their storage facilities. He managed to almost double the order for materials to do the work, the tools were ‘stolen’ in a hold up so had to be re-bought and to cap it, he managed to arrange a further problem for them with the water supply, something that had been fine until then. He had a special reason to target them; he, his wife and daughter were thrown onto the street when they could not pay for the night’s bed because the little work he could find had run out and he needed a few days to find more. Most people on the street regard work as only temporary and irregular because no matter how skilled or able, they are paid on a daily basis which is usually far less than the official amount set by the government as the minimum. They are regarded as not reliable by the employers, no matter how professional the work is because of not having a fixed address or contactable cell phone number which limits their ability to gain long term or stable employment. Add to this the lack of legal papers and work is sporadic at best. Part of the problem is the sheer overwhelming numbers of people in this position. The official figures are way off because so many of these people have no papers, identity, or are even noted as being present in the country, which has made the number of people chasing a diminishing slice of the pie even greater so that the little work available has far too many applying to do it.
The daily hunt for food and clothing is definitely only sporadically met by the charity and NGO/NPO institutional organisations that openly tout their deeds to encourage a constant inflow of capital in whatever form that takes. The people on the street do receive some help but the overriding consensus of opinion amongst them is that these organisations are mainly in it for themselves, an opinion based on the real time and real life experiences they have been subjected to. They were openly honest with us as there was nothing to gain or lose in telling us what they truly felt and we corroborated much of what they said by our own direct experience of dealing with these organisations as members of the people who live on the street. Far too many do not live up to their stated aims except in the most desultory way, a sad indictment given the amount of open hearted people and businesses who support and maintain them in the belief that they are helping those most in need when they need it most.
Do you really care or
Want to help me,
Or keep me in the same place,
So you can feel superior.
Give and your conscience is stilled,
But you never really find out,
What caused the need
And how to resolve it.
Is it your responsibility?
They bring it on themselves,
Those who stand and beg.
To boldly write what is never written.