Consequences of shaming poor South Africans

THE recent antipoor statement by Herman Mashaba, the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) Johannesburg mayoral candidate, during an interview on SABC, should not shock us at all. “It is interesting that you can expect poor people to be leaders. That is looking for trouble, in any given situation… The budget of the city of Johannesburg is R40bn plus, (yet) you put in someone who’s never really seen R100 in his life,” he said.

Public discourse in SA about the state of the economy always takes on an undertone of insult. One need look no further than “Nkandlagate” to find middle-class commentators claiming they are the sole sponsors of President Jacob Zuma’s private homestead. There is no acknowledgment that poor people pay tax too, or that they are an active part of the economy. In most cases the poor are dismissed as unimaginative and lazy, simply waiting for state grants.

Writer and activist Koketso Moeti (@Kmoeti) wrote a response against this false argument in the Mail & Guardian, saying it “ignores that income tax is not the sole form of tax in SA”. The most common form of taxation is value-added tax (VAT), and apart from a few basic tax-exempted goods everyone who makes a purchase pays VAT. She also points out that poor people contribute to state revenues through tariffs such as the fuel levy and other forms of taxation that are not limited to those who have an income. This debunks the notion that poor people only take, never give.

Mashaba, like all of those who have contempt for the poor, believe poor people do not know how to handle finances and do not save. But this, too, is untrue. Those of us from poor families grew up with stokvels, where people in impoverished communities pooled their funds to save money and invest. The money is usually saved for burial societies and various celebrations. A report published by market research company African Response showed that the South African stokvel industry was worth R25bn and is supported by 8.6-million people.

When former US president Harry Truman said “readers are leaders”, he surely did not expect this statement to be used against poor people, implying that they do not read. This is also factually incorrect, although it is true that poverty is linked to illiteracy and compromises affordability and availability of reading material.

Despite this, a newspaper like Isolezwe, which publishes in isiZulu and has an overwhelmingly poor readership, is one of only a handful in the country that is growing its circulation. The same applies to community newspapers such as Eyethu in Edendale and Echo in KwaZulu-Natal, where poor people get to create the content and keep track of issues.

In 2013, Business Day published a survey by global payments technology company Visa, which showed that the majority of middle-class South Africans spent on average R7,283 each month to pay off debt. That number will surely have increased as we entered tougher economic times, but it is consistent with the statement by Debt Rescue CEO Neil Roets, who argued that many middle-class families were constantly on the verge of sliding into poverty. The fear that missing one salary will send you to the “mashonisas” is poverty. The constant need to borrow money to pay for school fees and clothes in poverty.

We do ourselves a disservice by shaming people who are poorer than us. It hinders us from seeing our own poverty and agitating for structural changes such as ownership of land. A poverty-shamer such as Mashaba cannot lead us in Johannesburg as he denies poor people the right to participate fully in our democracy as equal citizens.

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