Positions of Power toward the Poor

Us who have “…are doomed to think that everything comes from us…”

There I was, in full swing, past Debonairs in Rondebosch, attending to heaps of administrative tasks on Tuesday morning. From certifying documents at the Police station, forced laughter towards the police officers flirtatiousness. Humph, such impositions are the ways of living in a body, a woman’s – body, thus of being in South Africa. I certainly can’t remember the last time I asked for an affidavit or a document to be certified without mildly rolling my eyes beneath that small-mesh talk.

Moving on, I have been living in Cape Town, Southern suburbs for 8 years. Nothing about the landscape is strange to me, the tarred roads, the numerous fast food restaurants lined on either side of the road, the Somalian elderly man who sells cigarets and sweets opposite clicks; I know the faces of the homeless men and women on the street far too well. So well that If I spotted one of them in town or Kenilworth, I’d easily say, “Oh ya, lo bhuti, ngowase Rondebosch neh (he is the guy from Rondebosch right)?!”

© Johnny Miller/Millefoto

I’m getting things done today, cutting straight past beggars on the street.

© Dawei Huang

On my walk back to the carwash, a homeless man, [another one whom I’d claim if I ever saw in town or Kennilworth] tiredly waves at me and calls out yeyyi, yeyyi a few times, pointing to something. I look back, shrug my shoulders and give him that perfunctory  “no money today” kind of look with a smile with full lips, all the while my eyes empty of genuine care. This is a polished skill set that you accrue as you “middle class.” You learn how to incubate yourself from glaring poverty; when to lock your car doors. You quickly higher your windows before reaching the robots. I honestly wonder how I do this sometimes, how we do this: love with indifference. Aspire to lead countries with inaction and passivity. It’s perplexing.

I enter innovation -my car- she’s deliciously clean. I am surprised by the doubling of the wash price due to water restrictions. But I quickly remind myself of the day-we-get-to-zero article Lindo referred me to yesterday, exploring how desperate the years will be if the crisis in Cape Town continues. So as an informed citizen I don’t moan. I soon realize my phone is missing. I hurriedly returned to the post-office where I last used it. The staff helps me to call it – incessantly. To my relief, it’s ringing but-nobody-is-picking-up. Disempowered I return to the car and on my way, I ask the familiar beggar who waved at me earlier whether he caught sight of a phone. His blueish gray aging eyes penetratingly stare into me and then he says:

“Ndiye ndakubiza (I called you),

Khange undihoye (you did not pay attention to me),

Masiyothathatha iphone yakho phaya (let’s go get your phone there).” 

I was startled, self-dissatisfied and thankful all at once.

My encounter with Bhut-Thabiso was an important reminder to me, that though I am materially sufficient, my mind-my soul-my sense of what it means to be human is ever so dependent on my unqualified appreciation of the other. I want to highlight two problems visible in my thinking during this encounter.

  1. I’d assumed he needed money when he called me. Sadly, my interaction with him didn’t go beyond my ability to reason his image and his needs-all concluded on whom I perceived him to be. The wisdom of this verse speaks, “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
  2. It is said, that “anyone who has experienced poverty knows how expensive it is to be poor.” Consequently, I thought on the instinct of him needing to survive, a phone being the sole asset for his provision-that when he picked it up, he would’ve rather sold it than return it. Problem: Anaemic thinking. I used his material position to predict his actions. Negating his will to pursue moral goodness, his disposition to do right, by my own projection I was shocked to realize that he too [despite his circumstances] could choose to act on values rather than survival and instinct. He was trustworthy. 

Later on, as I [ashamedly] reflected on this experience [dispositions of power toward the poor], I remembered a question regarding South Africa from Craine Soudiens book “realizing the dream.”

He asks: “With all its racial, gendered and classed sound and fury, how can one cultivate a  [true] sense of humanity (here)?” His answer speaks to our existential authenticity and that of others. His answer reads as follows:

“By grasping an unqualified appreciation of the humanness of the other.”

This includes the awareness that one’s well being is completely dependent on the well being of the other….upon whom we will inevitably call when one’s imagined sufficiency…..in terms of well being of the mind is shown to be impossible?” 

Better put “..one human being stands in a constant state of dependence and obligation to another.

Human life is about individuals and their debt of mutuality to each other.” 

In short, I am reminded that the essence of our humanity does not rest on our material possessions. We are not what we have. To really examine whom we are Jobs words offer a pathway to deeper understanding. He writes “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave.” 

My final admonishment is that as you continue to go on with your daily tasks, ask yourself this [myself included] what does practicing Ubuntu look like towards the “least of these” the man on the street?

4 thoughts on “Positions of Power toward the Poor

  1. Loved this!!!!! Resonated deeply with every word. I saw this ruggedly dressed man the other day. He looked at what seemed like nothing and smiled. I wondered if he might be seeing something worth smiling about that my reality inhibited me from seeing. I always think of the scripture (paraphrasing) that alludes that when I was hungry you fed me, when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink when entertaining the “least of these” you may have entertained angels.

    I find it hard to in everyday reconcile what my consistent response should be. If it’s possible to maintain a constant posture towards injustice and the humanity of others? How do you aspire to “walk with Kings” and yet “maintain the common touch of man”?


    1. Aaah I hadn’t heard that in a while “to walk with kings” and yet “maintain the common touch of man.” This is why “ordering your private world is a must read. The last chapter basically explores this straddling between worlds because your inner man is sturdy and perceptive.


  2. Mbali

    This absolutely resonates with me. I have been on this path of The spirit of Ubuntu and Goodwill. I ask myself each day, how does one exercise the true sense of Ubuntu….show goodwill even in the face of all bad and ugly.

    There is something powerful and strong about the word ” Umntu” rather than being called a “Human Being” but ” Umntu” ukhe uyive? “NdingUmntu”. I derive most of my strength from that sense of calling myself “Umntu”, that translates itself into everyday life and being mindful of each and everything I do or say. It is a hard and difficult road.

    As you posed the question “what does practising Ubuntu look like towards the “least of these” the man on the street?”

    Rather than what it should look like? How would you like to be treated as “Umntu”? regardless of your circumstances or class.


    1. Hi Mbali,

      I am so sorry for the delayed response. I set aside time to respond to comments this morning and now re-reading your comment, I am blown away by the idea of calling myself umntu. I felt what you were saying so much! Wow!

      I have a feeling this concept is going to stay with me for a while! Thank you for this moment of teaching.


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