By Thato Magano
After initially feeling like a self satisfied good Samaritan for helping a stranger in trouble, Thato has a niggling feeling that it might not have been enough. He asks if we, as people with greater access and privilege than most, we are going beyond the surface and HEARING what people are asking of us?
So last night, I unexpectedly found myself sitting on R20k+ couch at an event that I got a last minute invite to because there was someone attending that event that I needed to talk to. The event was at Hyde Park Corner, in a cordoned off area just in front of the Woolies entrance and the mall concierge desk, at a retail store whose name I will not mention.
When I got there, before the event had started and while people were getting into the event area and getting their welcome glasses of Glenfiddich, out the corner of my eye, I noticed a young man whose body language expressed an angst that I was familiar with but because I was there for the event and to meet this person, I chose to ignore him.
As I sat on the couch, I noticed this young man and how he would randomly stop to talk to people, either on their way into or out the mall, and how in the majority they were all dismissive of him. As I sat on the couch, chatting to the person I had dropped my friend for to go meet, I couldn’t help but be bothered by the young man.
After thirty minutes of seeing him stop strangers and being dismissed, the tension in his body was starting to become visible and I realised that I couldn’t ignore him anymore. I walked out of my cocoon of the event venue and went to the young man. I introduced myself and told him that something about his body language told me that he needed help and so proceeded to ask him what is it that I could do to help him.
When he opened his mouth, he had the most difficult and debilitating stutter, made worse by his nervousness that it was hard to follow what he was saying. Also, because I had observed that the people he was stopping to speak to were mainly white (as per the demographic of the shopping centre) but that he did ask a few of the Black faces that were coming to the event, I think the shame of having to tell me what had happened to him made him beat about the bush for longer than he needed. I insisted that he tell me what he needed, which I think I did about five times before he could tell me his story.
With the stutter, what should have been a two minute long story and ask went on for seven minutes. With great patience, I listened because of the frustration in his face.
Firstly, he told me how he had come to Jo’burg that day from Rustenburg, from Phokeng specifically, for a job interview – to which I interjected and told him that I’m also from those parts, Luka specifically – then how when he got here, the person he had arranged to meet for the interview was a no show and how with great angst, he had spent almost all afternoon trying to locate the individual he was supposed to meet. In his hands, he had an A5 sized envelope with all his certificates and offered to show them to me to corroborate his story and to indicate good faith.
And finally, he told me how when he had given up, when he was setting on going back home, he got mugged.
The muggers took all his money, his cellphone and also stabbed him on the edge of his right hand such that he had to walk to the nearest public health facility he could find to have the wound attended to. He got stitches and was given medication and sent on his way. After all that, he found himself in the foreigness of Hyde Park out of desperation needing to get home.
When I was speaking to him, I dawned on me how late it was, it was just after 19:00. Immediately, I offered to help. I asked him what options would my help offer him to get home still last night. He said it was too late to get a taxi home at that time, which I believed and agreed with. He said he would rather go to Park Station and take the 21:00 bus to Rustenburg. He told me how much both options would cost. He apologised for what he felt was the outrageousness of his request as the amount of money he needed was equivalent to what my friend and I would have spend on dinner that evening (which I had withdrawn earlier in the day in anticipation).
I went to my wallet and gave him the money. I said to him that I was trusting that he was telling me the truth, that if he was not, then it was on his conscience and not mine if he was taking advantage of me. I handed over the money rolled as tightly as possible such that I also did not contribute to the embarrassment that I felt he already felt having to ask for help to get himself home. I also felt the many eyes of the people around us, from the concierge itself to the patrons and the guests at the event.
After giving him the money, I went back to the event and sat on that R20k+ couch again. In trying to avoid the young man further embarrassment, I did not look to see which direction he went as he was leaving the mall. After five (5) minutes had passed, I looked back to see if he was still there and he was gone. I said a small prayer, hoping and wishing that he gets home safe.
Then I mingled and chatted to the person I had went to see, go their details and we agreed to meet at a later stage as our conversation led an area of interest we have in common that could have revenue earning potential. I indulged on the fabulous eats from my favourite eatery in the mall, Life Grand Café, as they were brought out in their dozens by the waiters and also sipped on some Glenfiddich, first with Appletiser and lots of ice, then water and ice and then I just drank water. My rationale was that I was pacing myself for the long night ahead. At the end of the event, I reached for my phone, gave the UBER app the coordinates and I was safely home after twenty (20) minutes.
This morning, reflecting on last night, I realised I should have been a better human being in that moment with that young man. First, I knew that I couldn’t offer the young man a place to sleep but I thought about it last night and this morning still, but the option could not have worked. But I realise now that I could have asked for a number to call him on today to see if he got home safe. It is only now that I realise that my intervention does not mean have any great significance on that young man’s life because all I did was to throw money at the problem without really addressing the issue.
The young man is unemployed and he had trekked all the way, one hundred and twenty kilometres (120) all the way, looking for a different future. I realise I could have taken the time to get a number so that I could find out how WE could help him. Last night, I was too focused on the OTHER and how they had ignored and walked past and didn’t really take the time to LISTEN to him. In trying to be better than them, I too became too focused on resolving the situation as quickly as possible.
What I did not do, what I failed to do was LISTEN to the young man. I did not pay enough attention to WHAT he was really asking for. Yes, he needed to get home and he needed money for that but what he really needs, what he was saying is that he NEEDS an opportunity, the CHANCE to change his circumstance.
Because I was imagining myself in his shoes and feeling the pain of the embarrassment of having to ask for help, I responded with a middle class dismissiveness as to the immediacy of the situation and did not really focus on what can BE done to help this young man DO BETTER in life.
And that is the challenge we have as people with access: ARE WE REALY LISTENING to what people are saying when they tell us what it is that they do not have. This scenario plays itself out differently in many ways, be it service delivery protest, students striking for NSFAS fees, or workers asking for a raise above inflation but it always boils down to one thing: As the person/people with POWER in that circumstance, are you/we going beyond the surface and HEARING what people are asking of us?
This morning, I can only hope the young man got home safe. I can only hope he will have the heart to try again, to put himself out there into the belly of the beast knowing that it wasn’t such a pleasurable experience the first time. I can only hope that he gets over the SHAME of having to ask for what he needed to relieve his angst, to get over the multiple dismissals he encountered. To know that he had every right to ask for relief from his fellow countrymen because that is the PROMISE of the Rainbow Nation, the nation of Ubuntu, the nation of Mandela.
However, that incident made me reflect differently. It made me realise not to take pride in my intervention last night. It asked me to ask more of myself. It asked me to commit to a different response if I ever have to encounter another situation like this. I have to commit myself to riding myself of the HERO complex that was endemic in my response last night. I have to commit myself to HEARING so that I can respond better. To hear so that we can sustained relief and solutions for people like the young man. We NEED to HEAR each other BETTER.