Columns 12.7.2018 08:30 am

A poor woman’s ignorance of her situation and rights broke my heart

Zenzele informal settlement resident Dimakatso Makgatho collects firewood in Westonaria, Randfontein, 20 June 2018. Residents turn to firewood as the increasing price of paraffin threatens to darken their winter. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

Zenzele informal settlement resident Dimakatso Makgatho collects firewood in Westonaria, Randfontein, 20 June 2018. Residents turn to firewood as the increasing price of paraffin threatens to darken their winter. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

I wonder how many South Africans are okay with living under poor circumstances and don’t talk about it because they know no better?

About a month ago, I was sent out on assignment in search of a human interest story that would highlight the suffering that would be caused by the fuel price increases.

I knew the photographer and I would be going to a slum on the outskirts of one of the busiest cities in South Africa, Johannesburg. I expected I would encounter poverty … but I was never ready for what I saw.

Before we reached the squatter camp, we saw two women who seemed busy cutting up wood in the bush.

Taking a closer look at them as we stopped the car and walked towards them, I noticed they were wrapped up in thin, worn-out clothing and they seemed to have been spending hours working hard under the scorching winter sun. They had already settled into their routine – one trimmed the long pieces of wood while the other cut them into little pieces.

After we assured them we were not attackers, one of them agreed to speak to us.

She told us she would be using the firewood to cook and that she used paraffin to warm up her house during the winter. She then told us she worked eight times a month on piece jobs and that the money she earned was enough to pay for the paraffin, which she believed cost R10 per litre because the spaza shop she bought from gave her 10 bottles.

We asked her what she would do if she didn’t earn enough to afford the paraffin after the increase … and it was either she truly didn’t understand the question or she didn’t understand how the increase would have an impact on her.

Either way, it touched my heart to see how a woman, as poor as she was, did not understand her economic circumstances and saw her struggle as a normal, everyday chore.

She told us if the prices increased at the nearest garage, she would walk the longer distance to one she thought was cheaper, despite us telling her the prices would be increasing everywhere. She insisted she was not a victim; she was a survivor of her economic circumstances!

It saddened me that she was this oblivious to the realities of her life, because of her lack of education and knowledge of her rights in post-apartheid South Africa.

I wonder how many other South Africans are okay with living under poor circumstances and don’t talk about it because they know no better.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of people who are unhappy and very much aware for their predicaments … we cover their plight every day in the paper. But there is still a large group of people who aren’t upset because they don’t know why they should be upset.

The conversation with this woman made me understand the importance of education and knowledge of one’s rights in a democracy, including economic rights. People, surely, have the right to live without poverty?

She told us she had been living in the same economic conditions with job uncertainty since 1997, 21 years ago – not long after South Africa became a democracy.

If she knew a little bit about her rights, maybe she would be angry or bitter towards the government, maybe she would be busy joining service delivery protests to fight her local municipalities. Maybe we wouldn’t have found her in the bush to begin with … but we did.

Chisom Jenniffer Okoye.

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