by Tony Copple
"Can you see me now?" by Laurie-Ann Zachar Copple, 2020 (c)
Tony has been thinking about the causes of the poverty that we are knee deep in - not ourselves, but for some of the teen leaders and their families, and the kids that we mentor and work with. Township poverty is different from the poverty we saw in Mozambique. But it is grinding poverty - the kind that when you just about have your head above water, someone, or some gang member pushes you under. - Laurie-Ann
We came here to love and help people in poverty; particularly children. I am not sure what we expected it would look like. After three years plus, we now know what it looks like, and thank God that he has given us the means and the desire to help a few people in their great needs, with the help of some of you reading this.
There are many people with a better understanding of these things than I, and I ask their forgiveness should they read this and disagree with my conclusions. It’s just what I see.
Apartheid ended in 1994. During its time laws were passed which benefited the whites at the expense of the poor, including restricting their access to education. The purpose of that was not to save money; it was to attempt to make it very hard for the black and coloured races to elevate themselves above poverty, then or in the future. It succeeded so well that a further post-1994 generation has missed out on learning above the absolute basics. The uneducated parents are not well equipped to bring up children. Since 1994, this specific problem has been addressed to some extent by placing schools in the townships, and allowing township children access to all schools in their area. We know many teenagers who have benefited from these schools, and are way better prepared for life than their parents. In the present lock down however, there is one glaring problem: wifi. On-line learning has become an essential part of the teaching method, and the schools provide comprehensive materials usually via WhatsApp to allow the children to study from home. But township children almost never have access to wifi, and must therefore buy data. They have no money for data, or anything else, so most of them have missed the on-line learning. This is in effect a return to the Apartheid system of privilege mostly for white kids. This is why, from the beginning of lock down, we have provided free air time and data (and power) to the five families we work with. We can do this from our own computer using an app called Powertime. We also have them to our house frequently to make use of our unlimited wifi so they can do school work and share lunch with us. The solution would have been for the municipal government to have funded free wifi hotspots throughout the townships, but I have never seen or heard this mentioned in any policy statement.
Sadly, there are many drop-outs from the schools, even though the children know it is their one chance for a better life. A girl we once included in our training sessions stole from our house. Not because she was desperate, but because all her life she had been taught by parents to take any opportunity to steal, as a matter of necessity to put bread on their table. She dropped out of school at 15. Her mother was attacked on two occasions by her live-in boyfriend, who was in and out of jail, and often threatened the girl. We worked quite closely with her and Child Welfare to arrange that she stay with an aunt rather than in her own dangerous family, but sadly she continued with a life of petty crime, stealing from her aunt. Like many poor South Africans she continually made decisions that worsened her already bad situation. Today, she is a drug addict and prostitute on the streets of Worcester, fending for herself. Her mother also still sees the man who abuses her, and like many in her situation never took the obvious action of a restraining order on him.
Stealing seems to be endemic in Worcester townships. Within families, brothers will steal from sisters and both will steal from mothers. One family we know well, headed by a grandmother, used to buy bulk food and sell it to neighbours – a helpful income stream. One day, I drove them home from a supermarket with my trunk full of bags of staple foods. Within 24 hours, the boyfriend of one of the daughters had forced entry to their house and stolen all the food, and sold it for drugs. By this act he destroyed their immediate livelihood and the means to keep their business going in the future. They have never recovered. Cell phones are very common even among those who have almost no other possessions. There is a cell phone repair shop on almost every street in the town. There is a network of dealers who will buy stolen phones for a fraction of their value and pass them on for resale through the shadier cell phone repair shops. This offers a source of income to every young boy with no conscience. We had bought a cheap smart phone for one of the girls we mentor. A week later her brother took it right off the charger, and probably sold it for a pittance. Without the phone she is dependent on borrowing a phone from anyone she is with, the most common reason being to tell us she hasn’t eaten for two days; please will we bring her food. This girl is resourceful, energetic, and started a Bible study group for children in her community which has run for the last three months. Both her parents live locally and are working, but earn so little that she lives with an aunt.
The government pays disability grants and child grants. Some girls from the age of about 15 will have babies in order to receive the child grant, not realizing that babies cost more than the grants. The fathers are seldom involved with their offspring after conception and this is somehow viewed as normal. One sees the young mothers in the street with their baby on their back. A proportion of these babies get taken in by grandmothers. Not only the very disadvantaged have babies. We know an 18 year-old with a place at university and a very bright future who became pregnant. She now faces a life of dependency. Rape is frightfully common. One of the girls we mentor was raped recently, and this was the second time in her life. The perpetrator wore a balaclava so she cannot identify him, but believes he was a gang member, possibly carrying out an act to advance his standing in a gang. A family of six we help includes four children/teens abandoned by their natural parents, and only two of the four came with child grants. (This is the family which had their bulk food stolen). The other adult in addition to the grandmother is a nineteen year old orphan with a scholarship to a Cape Town university. She tried hard to get a temporary job prior to starting at college later this year, with no success, even though she is highly capable. We are very concerned that when she does start at university, her grandmother will insist she comes home to continue helping run the family. We are planning to assist her and the family financially after we have gone, as we have been doing since the start of lock down, to prevent her losing her university education. With this in mind, we have recently switched the support we give her from buying and delivering much of the family food, to a cash amount every two weeks. This is only possible because two generous Canadian supporters agreed to sponsor her and have provided all of the money she will need until we leave. We are praying for more supporters for the other girls we mentor.
I mentioned above that babies cost more than the grants. One factor in this is that disposable diapers are used for almost all children, however poor, costing half as much as the parent’s food budget. We bought cloth nappies for one mother, which are very difficult to find in Worcester stores. Yet now she has used them ever since, saving significant expense. She has nothing to do all day, so washing nappies is not a problem. I cannot fathom why disposable diapers are so much used in this community, other than that everyone else uses them.
One associates most illegal drug addiction with the poor, after they have been targeted by gangs and hooked. But there are more serious addictions in these times of lock down, when there is so little money around that would-be addicts have no cash for the dealers. An example is sugar. Parents here introduce their children to tea and coffee taken with three or four teaspoons of sugar, since that’s the way they have always taken it. We have been supplying staple foods that we buy in bulk to our families for the last six months. The one item which they always ask for is sugar, more than vegetables, spaghetti or potatoes. We have seen it in our own house when they visit. Some cannot stand coffee with only three sugars; they need more. I gave up sugar in tea and coffee over a three week period 30 years ago (having similarly been introduced to it by my well-meaning parents), resulting is my being able to eat as much sweet treats as I like, which is plenty, so I gently try to encourage the children to cut down, so far with no success, even with the bright ones. Sugar is the most powerful poison in the world, killing more than any other substance through obesity, diabetes and other conditions. In South Africa, more than 50% of women are obese and diabetes is very common. The amount of money poor families spend on sugar contributes to their poverty. Another addiction is cigarettes, where South Africa is a world leader. As soon as a young man or woman is earning even a little money, many of them will start smoking. The cost to their lifetime cash flow and to their future health is massive, yet they see role models, politicians and businessmen smoking, and want to follow.
There is one bad habit that seems almost universal. When people make tea or coffee, they fill the kettle to the top, even if they only want one cup. Having never learned physics, they don’t know that halving the volume of water boiled halves the cost of electricity used to boil it. Since heating water is a substantial proportion if what they use power for, cutting the cost by half (on average) saves a lot of power. By the way, the habit of over-filling kettles is almost as prevalent in western households. On a worldwide scale, the waste is astronomical. In South Africa, a serious dent could be made in load shedding if this one action were taken, but I have never heard it recommended by Eskom, the only power company, or any politician.
Some of the subjects mentioned above are normally categorized under home economics, or financial planning, subjects unheard of among the poor in the townships. When they receive grant money, their natural action is to spend it all on food. They never learned to keep back a proportion for emergencies, and the idea of saving for future needs is totally unknown. As we started providing food, I used to think that by giving them the basic staples, like potatoes and rice, they would then have enough of their own money to meet their less common needs, like soap, toothpaste, air time and sanitary pads. But a day or two after the grant comes in, and they have repaid loans and bought food, they have nothing, not in their bank and not at home. There’s nowhere to keep money at home where it won’t be stolen. Further, when we give them enough food for several days, they will gorge on it and have nothing left after the first day, because they are always so hungry. So we tend not to give them large amounts of anything. We have only occasionally given cash, in case it would be spent on bad things, which has meant that we have always done the shopping and delivery until very recently. With one family, which we have grown to trust more, we have just begun giving them cash instead of buying and delivering food, because shopping trips were taking too much of our time. Also, there is now a U-Save food and convenience store located in Avian Park, which was an initiative of private individuals, not the municipality. It remains to be seen if the experiment of providing cash will work. As an ex-professional financial planner, I have attempted to teach some of these principles. See http://web.ncf.ca/dq579/audio/cwcp_50_podcast.mp3 and https://www.coppleswesterncape.ca/coppleblog/archives/07-2020. Unfortunately little interest has been shown in these teachings, or in personal financial planning.
Cashflow is always a problem in the townships. Government grants can be paid into bank accounts, and more have bank accounts than you would expect for this reason. Many don’t, and they can be seen in long line-ups on grant days. Receipt of the grant is seen as an entitlement, just as the original allocation of their free houses was soon seen as entitlement. When we give food we seldom hear a thank-you; it too is something they feel entitled to. Once the grant money has arrived the first slice goes to some lucky people who have lent money and should be repaid, if only to encourage them to lend again. Less lucky donors will have to wait. Then it’s off to the supermarkets and stores for food and clothing for schoolchildren; school uniforms are compulsory. Schools continually ask for money from the children for events or outings. Usually the complete amount of the grant is exhausted within two days. We have been trying to encourage our families not to spend the full amount of the grant but to keep some back for emergencies, such as taxi fares if someone has to go to hospital and the ambulance hasn’t come, or money for air time for emergency calls. In the present situation without emergency funds, every rand is always spent. Young children ask every adult they meet for R1, enough for a pack of cheese NikNaks. So our girls will give us a shopping list of 15 items including very cheap ones, because there is literally no money (and no food) left in the house.
If you were one of the people who lent money, there is a brief window therefore when you might recover your loan before it’s too late, and you are told to wait another month. Prior to lock down there was another problem; a significant slice of the grant would be spent on alcohol at one of the many liquor and wine stores in Worcester. Drunkenness on pay days has reduced considerably during lock down, helped by bans on alcohol sales at the higher lock down levels. If you are a less important donor, there will be innumerable excuses why the loan cannot be repaid. After weeks or months of waiting, some donors, who are usually extended family members, will resort to threats of violence and actual violence to get their money. The violence could be breaking windows, or physical attacks with broken bottles, or anything else produced by anger. We have personally seen these results. Until recently we never lent cash, but the insistent demands finally persuaded us to do so in a few desperate cases. We never lent more than we could afford to lose, and almost never recovered the money. One lady who did return R200, then asked immediately for another loan of the same amount for another month. We had to disappoint her.
In such an environment of unemployment, young men join gangs and sell drugs. Rival gangs make war on each other for territory. Innocent residents are caught up in the territory wars and fear to cross certain streets. Shootings are common and though most victims are gang members, stray bullets fly and innocent people are killed. The police fear to come into the townships at night and ambulances won’t come in without a police escort. We have a number of times taken the victims of gender-based violence to hospital during the night. Our car is well known in Avian Park and so far we have not been attacked.
Although the townships were a product of Apartheid to keep whites separate from coloureds and blacks, the end of Apartheid has not alleviated the township scourge. Although there is no longer any enforced separation, economic factors have brought about a status quo that resembles Apartheid. The whites try and ignore them and certainly don’t offer any helping hands. Help such as it comes more from foreign missionaries. It seems that little will change in the near future. It may have been thought that townships adjacent to residential areas would benefit from employment opportunities and the charity of the more well-off. But as many cities have found, as they prosper and prices rise, the poor get poorer, unable to afford the higher standard of living. There are five or six dealerships on Worcester High Street selling BMW, Ford Rangers, and a host of very expensive SUVs. Mercedes Benz are common – much more than in Canada. There is no shortage of money here on the right side of the tracks.
Within the township populations are a proportion of naturally self-motivated and gifted individuals. Many of them have skills and talents that will not be recognized by their parents. But a few gifted kids will shine and flourish, encouraged by a loving mother. Trevor Noah has shown what is possible. Scholarships to universities are available to coloureds and blacks, and the schools are producing candidates. These are the hope for South Africa, because qualified candidates for business, professions and politics are scarce. Because of this scarcity, unqualified crooks are able to obtain positions of power. The result of this is the corruption that this country has become known for.
At present, the schools are still allowed to included Christian culture in their syllabus, and children grow up knowing the elements of Christian morality, even if they don't practise it. We see this in the children’s ministries we are involved in. There are 40 churches in the Avian Park township alone, though only 4 with a church building. Christianity is not laughed at; it is still something to aspire to. Western countries, in their mad rush towards removing religion from the public forum, may yet experience problems they never could have anticipated before their laws began being passed by atheists. President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa never finishes a speech without asking God to bless his country. God has a plan for South Africa. It is a brave work in progress, and much has been achieved since 1994. Free speech really is free here, and there are plenty of good brains in all races seeking to make things work better, and they are being heard. Over time they will succeed. Maybe, just maybe, the poor will not always be with us to the extent they are today.
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Tony and Laurie-Ann Copple (usually Laurie-Ann)
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