South Africa: Urban myth of the white beggar

South Africa has its share of white beggars and urban myth has it that many of them could be closet millionaires. A recent study on the lifestyles of the country’s white beggars came up with some interesting conclusions. Tom Nevin has the details. We’ve all heard the urban myth about the beggar we see on […]


South Africa has its share of white beggars and urban myth has it that many of them could be closet millionaires. A recent study on the lifestyles of the country’s white beggars came up with some interesting conclusions. Tom Nevin has the details.

We’ve all heard the urban myth about the beggar we see on the same corner every day and wonder if it can be true that he has a few millions in the bank.

He’s been making good money out of handouts for as many years as we can remember, has no office overheads, and being homeless he has no rent or mortgage. No light and water bills to pay and no PAYE or rates and taxes.

Personal grooming is an optional extra and brings to mind George Bernard Shaw’s timeless observation that his grandfather always had his annual bath on Christmas Eve, “whether he needed it or not”.

He does no grocery shopping because, for one thing he possesses no pantry and for another he invariably eats out – at the soup kitchens of Good Samaritan churches around the neighbourhood, from the generosity of kindly souls who respond with bread and tea when he rings the bell on the garden gate, or who oblige with some change that will finance a sausage or two at the corner café.

He has no motoring expenses because he has no car and his health needs are taken care of at government hospitals or clinics.

Now that we have ascertained that his overheads are virtually zero, the urban millionaire legend edges a little closer. Maybe he’s not worth a million, but could he be better off than he looks or than someone with a real job and real income and real debts and the real financial pressures of simply getting by? South African trade union Solidarity decided to look for some answers in this murky community. What they discovered was surprising.

The question everyone wanted answered, ‘what do white beggars make a day’, produced an interesting result. They ‘earn’ between R50 ($6) and R500 ($60) a day, according to Solidarity. The organisation’s Helping Hand subsidiary also learned that most beggars would like to work, but they’re not sufficiently educated to get reasonably paying work in an economy unable to provide work for some 2m job seekers. That piece of information put paid to the belief that the earnings were handsome, because 78% said they would work if they could get a job and 19% said they had never worked.

Flesh on the shadow

The survey was mounted to put some flesh on the bones of the white beggar myth and to understand the shadowy, lonely figures that stand at the crossroads, at traffic light controlled intersections and sometimes at stop streets during peak hour traffic. They appear early in the morning and disappear with the dusk, some perhaps to homes they might have, or a bed and a chair in doss-house hostels or even in a clump of bushes or a copse of trees. The latter are the truly homeless.

The 6,000ft Johannesburg altitude invites a bitterly cold winter and most panhandlers escape to the tropical climate of seaside holiday destination Durban on the Indian Ocean coast of KwaZulu-Natal, where sleeping on the beach is more a pleasure than an ordeal. And pickings can be rich with visitors in jolly and generous holiday spirits.

Inflation and rising food costs bedevil even this marginalised community. “It doesn’t seem long ago that I could buy a beef sausage and vetkoek (a doughy, deep fried dumpling about the size of a cricket ball) for R5 ($0.70), but not any more; now you need double that to buy anything to eat of a decent size.” Absolute staples such as bread, maize meal and very cheap cuts of meat are free of the 14% VAT.

But should such costs concern the vagrant making a purported comfortable tax-free living? The Helping Hand organisation’s indepth probe into white beggars’ income cast doubt that this was the free and easy life, although some seemed more adept at their trade than others.

In the course of researching this story, I found a white hobo with the unlikely name of Meredith on a suburban cricket field just after dawn one midsummer morning.

Despite an uncomfortable night on a hard bench in the stands, Meredith seemed well rested and in good spirits. He was happy to share his thoughts and experiences and later accepted my donation of R100 ($11) with no great show of enthusiasm.

The case of the ransomed boot

The life of the beggar is not for the faint-hearted. The perils of hard weather and even harder, meaner human predators abound. Meredith tells me that some months back he’d had a profitable day at his regular spot on a busy intersection and was able to buy a pair of nearly new boots from a rag and bone shop for R100 ($11).

His good fortune also subsidised a packet of fish and chips and a litre of powerful alcoholfortified cheap wine. Later he fell into a happy, hazy sleep, boots and all, on his cricket field bench. In the small hours of the morning he awoke to find a fellow vagrant taking off his boots. He jumped up and the thief sprinted off into the dark, taking one of Meredith’s boot with him. The vagrant was hopping mad.

“What’s he going to do with one boot?” he says to me, adding, “What am I going to do with just one boot?”

The answer to that question was revealed in the complex trading system that unfolded following the theft of the boot. “I know the guy who took my boot,” Meredith tells me. “He’s big and he’s mean. He found me the next day and said I could have my boot back for R50 ($6). I offered to sell him the other one for R50 but he just laughed and said they were too small for him. Anyway, a day later I had the money and I went to his possie (place) and bought my boot back.”

The colour of poverty

Indelibly, the colour complexities persist in South Africa; everything has a racial tone and the beggar community is no exception. A gag that never fails to raise a laugh amongst black beggars, apparently, is that being homeless for a white beggar is having to sleep in his car. So the myth persists with dry humour and no little resentment; so much so that black beggars claim white privilege is so deep that it takes in charity as well.

Media commentator Sibongile Mafu devoted her column in a popular daily to the lot of South Africa’s beggars, both black and white, noting that on balance her empathy went the way of the black mendicant.

“I can safely say,” she writes, “that the lack of consistency in my reaction to beggars is based solely on the colour of their skin. For me, poverty in this country has a colour, and it’s black. All this (Helping Hand) study reveals is that the world is just kinder to white people, even the downtrodden.”

However, the idea of the poor white continues to fascinate her, and she is convinced that white beggars can earn as much as R15,000 ($1,700) a month.

“Those white people go out of their way to tell you they grew up poor in apartheid too, so that makes them just like black people. Those white people say there was nothing they personally gained during apartheid, even in a system that went out its way to make them great. Is it truly that shocking that white beggars have this much earning potential, when they generally earn more in everything else too? It just mirrors how the rest of society operates, and how the world is a bit more accommodating to those with a lighter hue.”

Solidarity’s study was conducted in the provinces of Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape, South Africa’s most populous, and set out to unveil the perceptions and the reality of the lives of beggars. Field workers interviewed beggars in November and December 2012. Solidarity researcher Nicolien Welthagen says the public’s comments show people believe beggars do not want to work.

“Many people maintain that they offer beggars work, but they do not want to do demeaning work,” she says. “Furthermore, one or two of the beggars who did accept work quit almost immediately, sometimes within a few days, and started begging again.” Does this revelation hide more light than it emits, and do the white beggars make a small fortune out of their guilt-ridden countrymen than they ever could raking leaves?

I see Meredith from time to time when I take the dogs for a dawn run on the cricket field. He always has a ready and cheerful wave for me going on his way to a church in the area where he can take a communal hot shower and enjoy a breakfast of tea and sandwiches with others of his ilk. And contemplate the fortune or otherwise in the day ahead.

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