TALK TO US

CityPress - - Voices - Mbe Mb­hele [email protected]­press.co.za

Poverty is a re­lent­less beast that re­fuses to die. Since it re­fuses to die, it makes sense that it should be avoided at all costs. Per­haps not at all costs – be­cause the cost is of­ten your life. You sell it to the high­est bid­der and you are dead, fig­u­ra­tively and some­times lit­er­ally, all in the name of try­ing to avoid poverty. When you carry the bur­den of a dark skin, the threat of poverty al­ways looms over you. You be­come its fugi­tive.

It’s al­ways chas­ing and chas­ing and you are al­ways run­ning and run­ning.

Some­times you re­sort to pre­tence – that you no longer fear its claw. For, God knows, it is shame­ful to be poor. So you rather pre­tend than con­cede.

You pre­tend you have ar­rived. Tall glasses of cham­pagne – you hold them high. Art gal­leries – you at­tend them proudly. Big­gie Smalls said “fake it till you make it”, but the truth is, mak­ing it is not guar­an­teed.

This is not a new con­ver­sa­tion. We al­ways talk about poverty. Hell, we have a lived ex­pe­ri­ence of poverty. Politi­cians do it daily, es­pe­cially when its time to go to the bal­lot. Phi­lan­thropists use it to fur­ther their mo­tives. Peo­ple use poverty to try to es­cape it.

De­spite its over­the­o­ri­sa­tion, poverty re­mains this elu­sive thing that is om­nipresent – well, at least in the case of black peo­ple. Here I am para­phras­ing the mil­lions of black rad­i­cal schol­ars who have tried to give an ac­count of the black ex­pe­ri­ence.

Frantz Fanon said it best: “They are rich be­cause they are white and the in­verse is true. We are poor be­cause we are black.”

It mat­ters not how far you have climbed the so­cial and the eco­nomic lad­der. If you are black, your po­si­tion there is al­ways fraught with dan­ger. Which is to say you can have the il­lu­sion that you are rich, but that can change as quickly as the weather in Cape Town. The soc­cer stars we grew up idol­is­ing, who seemed to have made it, are to­day eat­ing from dust­bins. The many artists who were all over our TV screens didn’t have money to bury them­selves. I don’t even want to speak about busi­ness moguls and top politi­cians turned pau­pers.

Of course, it is eas­ier for one to blame it on their reck­less­ness, but a close read­ing of their cases shows there is a strong re­la­tion­ship be­tween their fate and their black­ness.

The po­si­tion of a rich black per­son is a pre­car­i­ous one. Here I am not ho­mogenis­ing black peo­ple, but, quite hon­estly, black peo­ple who are able to sus­tain their wealth are not a norm but an aber­ra­tion. A truly wealthy black per­son is an oxy­moron, or, at the very least, a tem­po­rary il­lu­sion.

Many refuse to ac­cept this re­al­ity and in quest of at­tempt­ing to deny it – even to them­selves – they en­gage in a vul­gar dis­play of op­u­lence.

I imag­ine a s’khothane com­ing out of a two-roomed dladla (house) in the town­ship wear­ing Ver­sace and Carvela. Of course there are el­e­ments of cul­ture and re­sis­tance to this, but the point be­ing driven home is that we are sub­con­sciously aware of our in­fe­ri­or­ity be­cause of the threat of poverty. And, as such, we al­ways feel the need to find cre­ative ways of con­ceal­ing it or re­sist­ing it. Maybe the s’khothane ex­am­ple is bad, old news re­ally.

Here is an­other – the black mid­dle class en­gages in the same de­bauch­ery, but theirs is draped in Zara or some­times fake Louis Vuit­ton bags. Have you seen In­sta­gram or Twit­ter these days?

Do not mis­read this char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion with that of lib­er­als and racists such as Jo­hann Ru­pert, who claim we are poor Poverty is om­nipresent, at least among black peo­ple. What do you do to es­cape the cy­cle?

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be­cause of our in­dul­gence in op­u­lence.

My char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion is quite the con­trary. We dis­play false op­u­lence pre­cisely be­cause we are poor. Be­neath that veil of fancy clothes and ex­pen­sive cars is the anx­i­ety and fear of know­ing that the shadow of poverty al­ways looms over us.

Per­haps this is why many of us feel the need to show off our “achieve­ments” un­der the pre­text of in­spir­ing oth­ers. We all know the pop­u­lar say­ing: “It’s pos­si­ble, black child.” But what re­ally is pos­si­ble? As­sim­i­lat­ing? Va­ca­tions? Grad­u­a­tions? Apart­ments in the north of Johannesburg? Is it re­ally pos­si­ble, or are those ameni­ties that can be at­tained only by a few and which will re­main a mi­rage for the poor black ma­jor­ity of this coun­try? The an­swer is sim­ple – it is not pos­si­ble, black child, un­til we change the struc­tural make-up of this coun­try.

The black mid­dle class is just used as a buf­fer to give the il­lu­sion that black peo­ple can make it. But the re­al­ity is that the struc­tural make-up of this coun­try makes it im­pos­si­ble for blacks to suc­ceed, re­gard­less of how much they hus­tle or how hard they work.

So, screw these de­grees, be­cause through­out the years they have not helped us map out ways to en­sure that mil­lions of our brothers and sis­ters break free from the poverty and op­pres­sion that con­tinue to en­snare them. Hear me: I am in no way sug­gest­ing that ed­u­ca­tion is unim­por­tant, but what I am say­ing is that, be­cause of the race re­la­tions in this coun­try, an ed­u­cated black is still a black. We will al­ways be re­minded of this.

Let me get to the point I have been at­tempt­ing to drive home. Not so long ago, I got my re­sults from Wits and, in the same week, I was evicted from a shack I was rent­ing. I went hither and thither try­ing to find tem­po­rary shel­ter. Alas. It started rain­ing; I was out­side in the rain with no place to go. It dawned on me that my black­ness was in­escapable. It mat­ters not where you are and what you think you have achieved, your pig­ment and the bur­den it car­ries will al­ways find a way to pro­trude; ooze out like pus. This is, of course, shame­ful and em­bar­rass­ing.

Some­thing must be done about it, I agree, but the quag­mire we are in might just be too deep.

I don’t want to take a pes­simistic stance, but if we are to stretch our imag­i­na­tions and map out bet­ter ways of re­sist­ing, we ought to speak the un­com­fort­able truth. So Riky Rick was prob­a­bly wrong when he said “us­a­ban’ usema sub­urb’sini?” (what are you scared of if you live in the suburbs?), for it does not mat­ter where you are, the threat of be­ing poor, vi­o­lated and dis­hon­oured fol­lows you ev­ery­where when you are black.

Mb­hele is a law grad­u­ate, a cre­ative writ­ing stu­dent at

Wits Univer­sity and au­thor of the an­thol­ogy of short sto­ries ti­tled Crazy Fa­ther and Other Very Short Lies

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