beggars and restaurants

January 5, 2011

Yesterday was our 2 year anniversary. Yes, congratulations is in order. Since we moved closer to Pretoria inner-city this year, and are now living in Arcadia, everything which does not involve our jobs are an adventure in discovering a new world at the moment. Yes, we’ve visited the city many times over the past years, whether for leisure, with church-outreaches, or exploration (and Maryke worked in the inner-city for a few weeks 2 years ago), but it’s different now. The words of Bilbo literally make sense for us: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door”. Walking out our front door confronts us with a world which we don’t know the rules of.

So, we intentionally chose to celebrate out anniversary in a way which would contribute to this discovery. At this point my more excitedly missionary friends might be disappointed because I didn’t spend my anniversary with the homeless of the city, and my more middle-class-and-happy-to-be-so friends might be relieved that I didn’t confirm the fears they had of what I might be busy with, but we simply went to this quaint little restaurant, 2 blocks from where we live, which we found interesting before moving here. It’s called Taras Bulba Steakhouse. Nice place. Love the old black man that waiters the whole place, and by the look of it has been doing this job for many years, and does it real well.

Upon exiting we were confronted by a local beggar. Obviously starting out with the words: “I don’t want any money, just something to eat”.

I guess this is what you get when not going to malls: no one keeps the beggars away. Maybe this is part of the task of our malls and shopping centers: to make sure that you can get from the shop to the car without anyone reminding you that the middle class existence is not shared by everyone.

Obviously the idea of waiting till we were exiting the restaurant and then asking for food was planned. One might even call it manipulation, and maybe the world does fit what was happening. But is this wrong? Is it wrong that I am reminded of the fact that in this country some will go to bed hungry right after I’ve consumed my T-bone. Is it my right to live in a world where I can clear my roads of reminders of reality? Or is it the right of beggars to remind us of the reality in which we live? Or did I make the choice to be reminded of this reality when I chose Taras which opens onto Hamilton street, rather than the Spur in *** *** where numerous security guards would have made sure that this meeting would never happen?

A few months ago I was involved with a project installing solar panels in a squatter camp near our church. It involved standing on ladders, hammering stuff to wooded squatter wall pillars, screwing in light-holders, and sometimes walking on roofs to fasten solar panels (squatter roofs are stronger than you might think, and it’s quite a few seeing a squatter camp from the rooftops). It also involved a lot of time spent with the people in the community, especially the two young guys we worked with in the installation process.

I’ve had a lot of discomfort with the project all along as well, which I’ll not dwell on in detail here, except for one aspect I’ve been reflecting on: On a typical day we would get to the settlement, get out our tools, and start at a point and work. In the houses, on the houses. We tried to be real civil, always asking permission, sometimes offering to come back later, trying to respect those whose property we were stepping onto, but we couldn’t rid ourselves of the reality that we kind of had this right to walk right past someones front door, right next to their houses, into their houses. Coming and going. Yes, they could tell us that we are not welcome, that we should go, but their is this kind of social consensus that we white people walking in-between the shacks has the right to do this.

But picture what happens when a black man walks down the road in the suburb. Picture what would happen if he decide to take a short-cut (corner) over someones lawn! Immediately the assumption would be that he is in the wrong, that this is not allowed! And ever though I was the guy coming in the stuff, I know that more than the stuff was at play when I was allowed free reign within the community. And I’m troubled by this reality.

As a white person I have the right to be skeptical of  a black person wandering around near my house.

However, as a white person I have the right to assume that wandering around in a poor black neighborhood is my right.

Shannon Sullivan helped me a lot, when she made the point that even white people who decide to move out of white neighborhoods because they want to fight their own racism, can very easily just be strengthening their privileged white self-understanding by this decision. The very fact that a white person can make the choice to live in a white suburban area, some of which has brilliant methods of keeping it rich and white, or make the choice to live in an inner-city environment, in a block of flats which is predominantly black people, or even in a squatter camp, is already an indebtedness to the privileged way in which the so-called “white race” has been constructed.

It’s a difficult journey then. Moving into a space, but also doing it and attempting to not come in as the white person who can determine how this space is ruled. More than that, allowing this space to make me uncomfortable, challenging my understanding of what the normalized space should look like. If I cannot open myself to the critique of  others, then maybe I’d better stay in my white suburb, rather than trying to extend my white space to again dominate those places where white people left so that others could now determine the rules.

It’s attempting to be changed by the space which I am not quite comfortable with, rather than coming in to change that space into something I am comfortable with.