Voices

There is nothing sexy about poverty

2019-11-19 23:35

The elephant in the room is the systemic, deep racial economic inequality in SA

The Springboks have finally completed their “nationwide” trophy parade. (If you live in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the North West, Free State and Northern Cape, now you know that some provinces are more equal than others.)

As is often the case in our country, sometimes messages get distorted and certain wrong narratives end up gaining traction in our society.

During the celebrations of the Boks’ triumph in Japan, it has been mentioned consistently that captain Siya Kolisi, as a 14-year-old, watched the 2007 Rugby World Cup final at a local tavern because there was no TV set at home.

Such an abnormal situation – a 14-year-old watching sports at a tavern – is not only normalised but it’s mentioned with pride and joy.

Even rational and responsible parents do not see that there is something fundamentally wrong with a situation in which a teenager had to resort to watching television at a local tavern.

Why, for instance, is this being condoned and celebrated?

The obvious question that no one wants to ask is: Why could Kolisi’s parents [or guardians] not afford a TV set 13 years into the “new” South Africa?

Why couldn’t a black family afford a TV set when, in 2007, a white family surely saw it as a basic need?

There is absolutely nothing sexy about poverty. The fact is that poverty dehumanises you. It strips you of your dignity and it gives others permission to belittle you.
Author - Sihle Khumalo

After all, how many of the white Springboks that Kolisi led in Japan did not have a TV set at home when they were his age?

The reason we never pause and ask these questions is because there is a tendency among us to obsess with what I call poverty sexification.

There is a narrative that seeks to justify – and even promote – why growing up below the poverty line is great for you.

The worst thing is that this “poverty sexification” narrative is mostly, but not exclusively, pursued by people who have never – not even for a day – lived in poverty.

To them poverty is something they see on TV, read about in newspapers, but has never and will never be their lived experience.

This phenomenon is often promoted, I think, for two reasons.

Firstly, it serves as a counter-argument-in-waiting.

Should anyone, especially a black person, complain about how unfair and exclusive the system is, the response will be overwhelming: “Look at Siya Kolisi … ”

And in the process we conveniently ignore how many other potential Kolisis, Makazole Mapimpis, Cheslin Kolbes were, and continue to be, shunned by the system.

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Springboks captain Siya Kolisi greets excited fans at the MTN head offices in Randburg during the team's 5-day trophy tour.

The second reason for poverty sexification is that it makes some among us feel less burdened by the injustices of the past, which they benefited handsomely from.

There is almost a warm and fuzzy feeling caused by the triumph-of-human-spirit-against-all-odds mantra that is thrown around.

The simple question is: Why did some children have to run for so many kilometres – on empty stomachs in pouring rain – before they could get to the starting line?

It’s almost a given that anytime a black South African achieves something great, especially on a global stage, we fall back into this poverty sexification trap.

In Kolisi’s case, another thing that has been consistently mentioned is “the dusty streets of Zwide” where he grew up.

Why was he born in a neighbourhood with dusty streets?

It is because, in the pre-1994 era, there was a conscious effort to underdevelop and underinvest in black areas their people?

How many of the white Springboks were born in the dusty streets? In the case where there was a dusty road, it led to their parents’ commercial farm.

Read: Too many South Africans remain trapped in poverty. These are the consequences

The elephant in the room, that for years has not been adequately addressed, is the systemic and deep racial economic inequality in our country.

But alas, that conversation and subsequent actions are lost because of all the noise about succeeding “against all odds”.

Admittedly, there are black people who also wear the poverty sexification badge with pride.

Now and then you read of a celebrity who was born in the “dusty streets of Soweto”. To them being born in the poor neighbourhood is almost an achievement.

That is how the system psychologically messed us up. We celebrate poverty.

Even rational and responsible parents do not see that there is something fundamentally wrong with a situation in which a teenager had to resort to watching television at a local tavern.

As someone who was born and grew up below the poverty line in rural KwaZulu-Natal, here is what I know: there is absolutely nothing sexy about poverty.

The fact is that poverty dehumanises you. It strips you of your dignity and it gives others permission to belittle you.

No human being should live a life of such consistent struggle and hustle. Life was never meant to be like that.

Therefore, irrespective of my achievements and failures, being born into poverty will never be something I state with pride or celebrate.

Yes it is part of my history. It is part of me.

The reason I was born poor is because of the colour of my parents’ skin. To that end, I refuse to let “born in poverty” be my bragging right.

To those who keep sexifying poverty, especially if you have never lived the poverty experience, please stop it.

If you have your demons you have to deal with regarding the injustices of the past, try different avenues to sort yourself out.

But poverty sexification should not be one of those. There is nothing sexy about poverty.

Congratulations, once again, to Siya Kolisi and the rest of the national rugby team. You did the nation proud.

It was a few weeks of distraction from the harshness of the reality of life that made even the poorest of the poor believe that it is possible … Until the matric results are released and the very poorest of the poor bear the brunt of the harshness of the reality of their lives.

Khumalo is the author of, among other books, Rainbow NationMy Zulu Arse

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As the Rugby World Cup euphoria dies down, isn’t time for SA to have an honest debate about poverty, inequality and racism?

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December 15 2019