“Are you busy?” she asked with a sweet smile.
“Yes, but I can talk for a minute. What do you need?” I replied.
Antonia, the cleaning lady at the school, launched into a story about needing to buy her child shoes, and so on and so on; I didn’t quite get the details. The gist was she wanted to borrow R200 until the end of the month.
I asked her to repeat the story because I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. Then, I had to make an instant decision.
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that,” I told her. “I don’t have money to lend. Maybe you can ask the boss if you need her to advance you money from next month.”
Her expression was hard to read. “Okaaay,” she said, drawing out the syllables as Africans here tend to do. I doubted she would go to the director. And wondered why she’d seen fit to ask me. It irked me for the rest of the day. It wasn’t the first time she’d asked me to lend her money. Before her request had been to borrow R20 till month end. I did it even though I didn’t feel comfortable. It was only R20 after all, and she said she needed it for food. I didn’t want to think of her not being able to eat. She promised to give it back to me, and she did at the end of that month. But I thought that interaction made it clear to her that I wasn’t in the business of lending money; apparently not.
I’m tired of the guilt that settles on me like a grey cloud in these kinds of situations. It’s a no-win state: whatever I do, I’m bound to feel bad. If I don’t lend her the money, I feel bad because I am obviously much better off financially than she is. If I do lend her the money, I’ll feel bad as well, being roped into doing something that’s completely inappropriate because I have difficulty setting those boundaries. I wonder if my colleagues have also been asked for loans. Or is it just me who comes across as someone always willing to give to others? It seems that being taken advantage of is the bitter result for an instinct to give. But no matter how magnanimous your personality, once this has happened a few times, one becomes more and more reluctant to give.
I wasn’t sure how Antonia would behave towards me after that. Would her ever-ready friendly smile that seemed to shine brighter for me than others suddenly go cold? But when I saw her later that afternoon, it was beaming brighter than ever. A part of me was relieved because I did like her and didn’t want to cause tension in our relationship. But another part of me became more irritated, her reaction clearly confirming that she, too, knew her request had been inappropriate. I couldn’t help but be more distant, needing to convey that I wouldn’t be approachable for any more financial requests. Although, that being said, if she had a sudden emergency and was desperately short of cash, I’d probably help her, as I would do for any friend or colleague. But this seemed to be a lack of foresight, not simply an unavoidable dilemma. And I didn’t like the assumption that it should be me who came to the rescue.
This is a constant dilemma in South Africa: when to give, how much, who to give to, and how to deal with the emotional repercussions. Everywhere you turn, you are confronted with someone in need: a few rand, a bit of food, a job. More often than not, people seem much more interested in a handout than a hand up. It’s hard not to feel deeply sad for those in these desperate situations. It’s also hard to know when your small donation is really a good idea.
A few weeks ago, a friend and I were standing by his car on a main road late at night. A thin young black girl walked past us.
“Please help me,” she implored. “I’m stuck in the city and don’t have enough money for a place to stay. I’m trying to get enough money to pay for a hostel. The one on Loop Street, it’s the cheapest. I just need R50 more.”
We looked at each other. To give or not to give: the same question as always. He shook his head, took R50 out of his wallet and handed it to her. Neither of us were sure if she’d really use it for that, but didn’t want to think of her sleeping outside in the cold.
The next morning on my way to work, the same girl approached me with the same story. The pink, wool hat I was wearing meant she probably didn’t recognize me from the night before. I shook my head at her, gritting my teeth. Another bullshit story, evidently. It made me feel angry and helpless at the same time. Even when you do go out of your way to put aside your oft-validated cynicism and “help” someone, you can never be sure.
In a way, I understand why many South Africans block out the reality of the pervasive poverty in the country completely: it saves them from this continuous grappling, mental gymnastics, and uncomfortable emotions. The legacy of apartheid has left devastating consequences in its wake. The worst is a creation of a black majority that rather than taking steps to better themselves, is waiting around for someone to do it for them. Government policy caters to this passivity by handing out endless grants and providing free housing rather than developing programs to skill and thus self-empower the population. It is the government that really needs to ponder the question of how to extend a hand with the potential to truly lift people up rather than simply allowing them to scrape by.