by Tony Copple
"Strand - Dancing in God's Grace" - Laurie-Ann Zachar Copple, 2020
We humans can be very arrogant when living in a foreign country and discovering things are done differently. Our natural reaction is to stop the locals in their tracks and show them what they are doing wrong, and suggest they change to our better ways. But it’s not that simple and it is that arrogant! Culture can differ widely from nation to nation, and sometimes what has been practised for generations is best in a given environment.
I was keen to change things when we arrived in South Africa. In my enthusiasm to stop people cycling on the wrong side of the road, I would drive closer to the pavement so they couldn’t pass me, and then stop. Luckily no-one was ever injured. Neither did I manage to change their behaviour. They probably just thought I was another weird white guy. After nearly four years driving in towns and townships, I no longer take issue with cyclists having absolutely no regard for or knowledge of the rules of the road. Even more surprising, I am realizing that in these conditions, cycling facing oncoming traffic is actually more efficient and safer. I just take extra care when I see someone on a bike with a baby in one arm and operating a cellphone with the other.
Funerals are important here, and not just because there are so many of them; particularly during Covid. People will put themselves in significant debt rather than to decline to go to the funeral of a relative, even a distant relative. In the townships, it sometimes feels as if everyone is a distant relative. A bus will be chartered to take the relatives to a funeral, possibly half way across the country, risking the need for more funerals in this country which has among the worst records for road accident in the world. Many of those going will have had to borrow the funds for the bus fare and food on the journey. Although nominally a Christian country, that Christian faith is often infused with ancestor worship, pre-dating their Christianity, which may explain why attending funerals is so important. During lock down, funeral attendance was limited by the government, and I would have occasional success dissuading the girls we mentor from attending some distant uncle’s funeral, mainly to reduce exposure to Covid. In general however, adults wouldn’t think of following my advice, and would risk their health and build up their debt without hesitation. The only type of life insurance that is heavily promoted is funeral insurance, intended to pay for not only a coffin and a preacher, but refreshments for the crowds that attend, not all of whom may have known the deceased, but most of whom are very hungry.
Being very hungry and living in townships brings with them a number of cultural characteristics. The #1 concern is where tomorrow’s food will come from. Stealing from family and friends is so common as to be normal. Items of choice to be stolen include cell phones because there's a ready market. I now have a defective cell phone in my car so that if I am held up by gangsters, and they demand a cell phone, I can give them one. I was asked to take a man to hospital after he was hit by a car. I brought him home to the family he had been staying with, but they became his target when he noticed a family member had hair straightening equipment. He later walked in to the house (people usually leave their doors open when they are home) and stole the equipment. Several hours later he wandered back into the house drunk from the beer he had bought with the proceeds for a fraction of the value of the equipment.
We invite the teenage girls we mentor to our house sometimes to use our unlimited wifi so they can do school projects. The girls really appreciate being in our house for a few hours, but when some of them leave we occasionally find that some of our stuff has left with them. In their minds, this is not stealing. They are entitled to it because we have it and they don’t. Very rarely they have taken money out of Laurie-Ann’s purse. If they are accused of taking something they will lie very convincingly that they haven’t taken it, regardless of the evidence. The dog bites the hand that feeds it. Is this behaviour cultural? To them it is natural, and a way to survive. What is unusual in South Africa is to have the very poor living in townships quite close to first world middle class neighbourhoods. What kinds of culture develop in such environments? There are benefits to township dwellers of proximity with well-off people. Some of the wealth filters through, in unskilled labouring jobs, shops, hospitals and health care (free to the poor). We don’t freak out if something seems to have disappeared, and don’t make a fuss at all unless we have incontrovertible proof as to the culprit. Why should someone born into middle class norms complain to someone born in poverty? This culture won’t be changed by self-righteousness on our parts.
Planning ahead is not cultural for the very poor. If they are running out of food, they won’t seek help or take any action until all the cupboards are bare and there is no money in the house or the bank. Then, very hungry, they will beg for help, and need it now. Part of this is an understandable reluctance to beg, until the stomach forces action. There are many examples of not planning ahead. No-one keeps paper and few have a pen, so formalising any sort of plan needs planning in itself. The only plan they have is the immediate need that is forefront in their mind at the time. For example, immediately money is available from a grant pay-out, they will go shopping and spend all the money. For this reason, we give weekly allowances to three of the girls. When we started that support six months ago we sent them the allowance that covered a month, but within the first week they had used it all. We are always recommending they never use up all the money but keep some for an emergency. For example, if someone needs to go to hospital, and no ambulance has come, they need R10 to get there by taxi, and they don’t have it. They can’t even buy R10 of air time to call someone. They are stuck, and someone could die, because they spent their last rand. In the event that a relative dies and they feel they must attend the funeral, their only option is to borrow the money for the fare and food on the journey, which can begin a cycle of debt that can precipitate violence if not repaid. The best justification I can think of that would support this culture is a literal reading of Matthew 6:34 where Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Who am I to argue with him!
I used to think teen and child pregnancy here was the result of the child grant that would be paid to a mother for the first 18 years of the child’s life. Western countries also pay grants to encourage higher birth rates. But here the birth rates are already high, and there are so many children and such high unemployment. I now believe that what we are seeing is the human cultural characteristic stated in the Bible to be fruitful and multiply. The poorer the community, the more this is followed, ensuring that poverty will not reduce the population. Many of the mothers are teenagers from about 15 and up. What is gratifying is how hard the moms work to look after their children. There is no lack of love. Few fathers are in evidence. Once conception is achieved, the chance of a father providing any support is rare. No one has any money other than the grant. Among the black community there is an additional cultural objective of showing that a female is capable of bearing a child and therefore would qualify as a wife. Since condoms would distort such practices, they are not widely used. I have heard psychologists on radio promoting their use as if they were the next new thing. Birth control is largely left to women. Are these cultural trends beneficial to society as a whole? Demographic studies tout Africa as a future world powerhouse as North America and Europe decline from a dearth of labour from their declining birth rates, and a lack of immigration. So you have to ask ‘Is there anything westerners can teach Africans in this area?’
When Apartheid ended in 1994, the government decided to provide free low-end housing. In some provinces, promises were made by the ANC to provide free education, electricity and water, putting the idea into peoples’ minds that virtually everything should be free. These were nothing more than electioneering promises and worth nothing. This created an attitude of entitlement among a generation of people who had never heard of economics. Ever since then, it has caused problems that don’t exist in other countries at least to the extent that they do here. If someone owns or works on a farm, their lives are in danger, since the expropriation of land without compensation has become an electoral slogan that hovers around enshrinement in law, and those without land believe they have right on their side. In a country where homes and healthcare are free to the poor, why would education be valued? And that is a massive issue. The only key to unlock poverty’s stranglehold has been scuppered by well-meaning but misguided politicians. We can hardly blame the poor.
Tony and Laurie-Ann Copple (usually Laurie-Ann)
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