I am a South African currently living in Canada. My grandfather calls me a “Hanskaki”, some call me smart and brave and others call me happy. But dreams do not lie and when I dream in the evenings it is dreams in Afrikaans about South Africa. My compass is my history, memories and experiences in South Africa and it will remain so even if we live here for many years. It influences and filters how I see things and what conclusions I draw on my experiences here. I’m from South Africa but South Africa is firmly embedded in my identity.
There are some images of South Africa that you just can’t get out of your mind. Some are beautiful and pleasant and some are sad and stubborn. For example, I remember a specific robot crossing in Northmead, Benoni that I crossed several times each day. At this intersection there was always a group of men, sometimes as many as twenty-five, who were hopeful at peak hours waiting for someone to employ them. Some stood with posters on which they advertised their craft. Many were painters. Others stood with trowel or tile appliances to show what they could do. Very often I have seen a bakkie stop and pick up a person or five. The relief and satisfaction was read on each face as they got their seat in the back of the bakkie. But there were always a few that were not uploaded. Sometimes, when I drove past it later in the morning, these retarded (in the most literal sense of the word) sat on the sidewalk listlessly and stared before them. Others lay in the sun and nap.
There was always a tightening around my heart when this scene played out in front of me. There are few things as sad as someone who is willing and eager to work and not happy enough to find work and be compensated for it. The temptation was sometimes great to take a different path so I could avoid seeing these men but it would feel too much to me as if I was one of the bad guys in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and rather stayed on course.
One winter morning I saw a man stop by a bakkie. However, the man did not charge anyone but opened his bakkie’s hood and served hot soup and bread to the guys who did not find work. I walked closer and learned that he is part of a church in a poor part of Benoni. I helped him distribute soup. Eventually I organized another group of local people to return to the men’s house on a Wednesday night, also to keep a cup of soup and bread ready.
I sat down with some of the men and listened to their stories.
Some asked me to pray for them, which I did. I expected that hearing these stories would make me even more discouraged about their fate and simply our country’s future. On the contrary. Yes there were many sad stories but I discovered that most guys are hopeful and have a plan and work themselves out bit by bit and move forward. Later, I even befriended one of these men, gave him some chores and allowed him to live in my living room. We became great friends and today he has a solid relationship.
What stays with me from my time with these men is the insight that people’s problems can seem overwhelming and make you anxious if you just stay at a distance. It is when you move closer and listen that you realize and gain peace about not being able to solve everyone’s problems, but in a way giving the message to some that they matter and are worthy. And who knows, you might be able to walk a longer and more intense path with one person yourself and be amazed at how soon someone gets on his feet because you helped him get off his knees.
I wish South Africa one day reached the place to have a job and a roof over your head and food on your plate is hardly a given and is seen as a basic human right as it is here in Canada. I don’t know how South Africa can get there but I know where it all begins. It starts with one person who does not leave another to his fate. It’s not just our right to help at least one person. It is a privilege. And it grinds your humanity.
Author: Gawie Snyman