I recently walked past a boy of about 10 years in the Cape Town city centre. He was barefoot and dressed in dirty, torn clothes. The jacket he was wearing swallowed his little frame and hung close to his ankles. He walked with his left hand stretched out in front of him, palm up and cupped to the sky. It looked more out of habit than hope. He looked at the adults that shared the pavement with him – his eyes pleading and seemed sad. I can’t imagine what those eyes had seen in his short time on this world.
I don’t want to imagine it. I don’t need to
The sight – all too familiar in our country – made me angry. None of the passersby seemed to notice; no one seemed to care. As a father of two, I was unable to ignore this, but how were others – no doubt some of them fathers and mothers – able to continue? How have South Africans become so apathetic to poverty, especially poverty affecting children?
Perhaps I am more sensitive to this image and it’s not just because of my kids. I spent time existing on the streets back in the 90s – existing is not living. Those on the street are in survival mode.
But what angered me even further was the fact that 20 years after my experience, children are still being born into these situations. Despite changes in leadership, social and economic advances and local and national government promises, 20 years on and the most vulnerable are still children on the streets. In fact, the display of apathy towards this boy is indicative of broken communities, broken spirits and a moral compass that is clearly not functioning. How can we, as good people, allow things like this to continue?
Why do we not see children sleeping under a bridge as a problem? Why aren’t we holding our leaders accountable? Why do we protest so much in this country, but we don’t deem the safety of our children worthy?
NOT GOOD ENOUGH
There have always been marginalised and there have been those that have not conformed to society – either through circumstance or through decisions made. Many of those are on the street. Reasons vary from falling on hard financial times, to substance abuse and illness. Many just lose the will to keep trying because they are overwhelmed by life and its hardships. There are even those who turn help away because they fear that they won’t be able to cope with what society sees as normal.
But these are not good enough reasons for our children to be on the street, and it’s certainly no reason for us to ignore the vulnerable. The well-being and protection of children is our collective responsibility.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do know that we need to show more compassion to those around us. It might be uncomfortable for us, but I can assure you its far more uncomfortable for them.
We need to care for those who can’t care for themselves, and if we can’t do that, we need to give each other the dignity of acknowledgement. Instead of wishing away a societal ill, we need to open up our hearts and find it within ourselves to make their plight a little more bearable and less despairing.
I walked past the boy, just like the rest of the adults going about their business, but my heart wouldn’t let me continue. I took money from my pocket and gave it to him, leaving the choice in his hands. He could solve his hunger pains with buying food or he could buy something else that solved none of his problems.
This interaction gave me no satisfaction, but it made a difference to him. I was lucky to not have fallen deeper into the pit of life on the street thanks to the kindness of strangers. I pray this child would be as lucky, but if that’s going to happen we have to acknowledge his existence.
It’s time we, comfortable in our own homes, stop hiding from the world outside. Kindness costs nothing, but a society deficient in kindness will suffer far greater ills – especially for the most vulnerable: our children.
Image: Rui Duarte – Homeless. Flickr.
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