17 August 2012

Making the poor richer

Poverty isn't really about money. Neither is wealth. But while we think it is, we will not sort out our problems in SA, says Susan Erasmus.


Poverty isn't really about money. Neither is wealth. The solution to poverty in this country is not a purely political one. But while we think it is, we will not sort out our problems in SA.

The visible differences between the rich and the poor are so stark in SA, but because we have lived with these for so long, we have come to accept them as part of the background scenery. That is until we suddenly see them through the eyes of visitors, such as my nieces from the US. 

A drive past Khayelitsha one Wednesday morning had them visibly shocked. Yes, there is poverty and homelessness in the US, but the sheer squalor and size of the section of this informal settlement next to the road had them asking questions. 

Why doesn’t the government do something? 

Where do I start? Everything sounds so lame: Yes, people now have access to power and water, and the government has built millions of houses since 1994. There are many more schools and clinics – and everyone has access to primary healthcare. But they can only do so much with a small base of taxpayers, a burgeoning population, unemployment, a high level of corruption, and so on, and so forth. 

Goats graze among rubbish on the side of the highway and small kids are playing in a puddle – of God knows what. 

And it doesn’t help that we’re heading for Stellenbosch, where the campus is glowing in golden sunshine, and the town basks in what can only be described as old money. 

The best I can do is to tell them it’s complicated. And it is. Very complicated. I have lived here all my life, and worked in townships for years and still don’t fully understand it. I do what good South Africans do under these circumstances: I shrug and I distract their attention with a Shiraz and the astonishing scenery. 

OK, so why don’t I live in an informal settlement? I have met many good, hardworking and intelligent people who do. The answer to this is also not simple. 

My parents sometimes really struggled to bring up three kids on the salaries of a civil servant and a part-time teacher. But by comparison to millions of others in the country we were rolling in the cash. What's more, when I was in the primary school, the government of the day was spending a lot more on the education of white children than on anyone else's kids. Shocking but true. Another shocker: there was a time when white kids got textbooks for free, but black kids had to pay for them. 

Back to my family: we had a house and a car, and even though it was a struggle for my parents, they made the financial sacrifices necessary to pay for our tertiary education. For that I remain eternally grateful, as it meant I did not start my working life with a huge student loan. A small one, but not a crippling one. 

And I suppose that’s where it starts: wealth is sometimes a generational thing. I am talking basic comforts here, not conspicuous consumption: that is just tasteless and unnecessary, even in a country where there aren’t so many poor people. 

It’s not that your parents give you money, but they are in a position to make it possible for you to learn to earn your own.They make the time for trips to the library, they take you places, and they find answers to your questions, they encourage curiosity. They find the energy, because they are not completely downtrodden by the stresses brought about by real grinding poverty and its accompanying social woes. 

But then poverty is also a generational thing. And it also can get passed on easily. It’s a cycle of hunger and hopelessness that takes true grit to break. Probably much more than I have ever been called upon to display. 

And that’s the thing. While people think that you can solve the financial problems of the country by simply redistributing the wealth, we are in for a rough ride. Because wealth can actually not really be measured in money: it lies in knowledge, in attitude, and in an ability to generate income. Without these three things, within a few years, the pattern will merely repeat itself. 

Studies have shown that within five years most Lottery winners in the UK are in more or less the same financial situation they were in before. True wealth is not reflected in our bank balances: it is reflected by the potential – whether tapped or untapped - that we have inside us. 

And that to me is the central issue: we cannot hope to eradicate poverty unless that ability to generate an income is also shared. As long as someone is not able to offer something that takes skill and know-how, they will not earn well. As long as there are millions of people out there who can do what they do, they’re unlikely to make much headway, or put their children on the path to a better life. Sad, but true. 

If I lose everything I have, I still have the know-how on how to earn a living. It will be a huge setback, and I will definitely have to rely on the temporary hospitality of friends and family, but it will be a matter of time before I find my feet and start again. 

I have to admit that Margaret Thatcher has always scared me, but she did say one thing with which I agreed: making the rich poorer does not make the poor richer. 

So where does that leave us? Our problems will not be solved by increases in government handouts, more surreptitious hands in the kitty, and promises of jobs. 

Imagine the turnaround if every teacher and every civil servant does the best they can do, if every parent acknowledges their financial and emotional responsibilities, and if people stop fantasising that there is a shortcut of some kind to wealth. Because there really isn't.

The road to sustainable wealth is a long and hard one. And it lies in the joint responsibility every person needs to take for their patch, for their kids, their families and their jobs, if they are employed. It is not something you achieve by voting for any political party. That’s once in five years. I am talking every single day here.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, August 2012)

Read more columns by Susan Erasmus here.




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