There are lots of things to see and experience on the streets of Cape Town. In the central city, or the ‘City Bowl’ as it is referred to, there are Public Safety Officials on every corner. These are men and women who have been employed through the ‘Central City Improvement District’ – I’m not exactly sure the extent of this program, but I think it has come about in light of the World Cup. These security officials spend their days walking around, keeping the streets safer, responding to complaints and keeping beggars away from tourists and shop fronts. It is no surprise that there are people asking for money and food; the economic inequality in this country (and especially in this city) is stunning.
An incident I experienced a few days ago has not yet left my mind, so I thought I would share it. I was meeting Dan for lunch and was waiting outside his office when a lady approached me. She didn’t look that old to me – maybe my age. I should mention that the area where Dan works is very popular, lots of restaurants, cafes and the Green market square (a market full of vendors selling their art from all over Africa). It’s a beautiful bustling part of town, with cobble stone roads and a huge ancient church nearby. Anyways, she comes up to me with a cup and she’s shaking it. I have no change. I look at her and say “I’m sorry, I don’t have any change” she responds “I’m not asking you for money, just please, can you buy me something to eat – I came from the hospital and I’m pregnant and since seven o’clock this morning I have not had anything to eat”. Before I could respond a man in a black suit has stepped between us and has told her that I already said no so she should leave me alone. I have seen him before and I suspect he is a private security guard, maybe hired by one of the cafes nearby. She immediately starts yelling at him (in a language I don’t understand) and then he kicks her in the foot and tells her to go. She pushes him and then makes a run for it, stops a few metres away, turns around and starts screaming at him again. He doesn’t seem to think much of this, and continues to tell her to get lost and then goes back to his post. I am standing there, watching but not watching this whole thing take place. I suspect the confrontations between people asking for money/ food and the security patrol people are always tense and that this wasn’t an unusual occurrence.
I feel uncomfortable with the whole thing. He really didn’t need to kick her and she probably didn’t need to scream at him. I probably should have given her some money or bought her some food and maybe the whole thing could have been avoided. I don’t know.
When someone approaches you they almost always say “Can I just ask you something? I’m not asking for money, but please could you just buy me something to eat”. It amazes me. It is a difficult situation. One the one hand I feel I could definitely afford to buy someone a pie (a small pie crust with meat or veg filling or whatever) but I can’t afford to buy everyone who asks me. It does get tiring being approached and it gets tiring feeling really shitty when you tell someone that you are sorry but you can’t buy them something to eat. People are poor, homeless and hungry and it is overwhelming. I feel especially overwhelmed and flabbergasted today because I had six people ask me for money and food today. I told each of them that I was sorry but I couldn’t give them any money or buy them any food. It’s a terrible feeling, but probably not as terrible as going hungry.