Spare Change, Like a Unicorn: The Guilt of Privilege

A little girl, maybe seven, bounces up to me in Spar. Her tartan skirt is neatly ironed, the mark of a proud mother sending her child off to school, but the silhouette is ruined by the scruffy rucksack slipping off her shoulder and the shirt which has already become untucked. It’s a look I am familiar with; it’s how I looked for my most of my school career.

She is clutching a grubby piece of yellow paper, which has been folded and unfolded a hundred times. It was clearly printed out of a cheap printer, or perhaps the ink was just running low. You can hardly read what it says, the school logo is illegible. It’s raffle tickets, R20 each.

My first reaction is to mentally reach inside my wallet and see how much cash I have on me. My second reaction, almost in the same split second, is to shake my head irritably and turn away.

It’s the reaction I have to everyone who asks me for money. For every beggar who stops at my car window or reaches their arm out to me as I pass them on the pavement. Every plastic rose or Funny Money or cheap car charger waved in my face. I am irritated, but not by them.

I am irritated because I feel pity. I hate feeling pity. It’s a condescending emotion and it’s fucking horrible, especially when many of these people are trying to eke out an honest living selling goods for change.

I am irritated because I want to dip into my pocket and pull out R100 note, send them to KFC to feed their whole family a hot meal. I am irritated because I can do this for the first guy but not the next and the one after that. I don’t earn enough to save the whole city.

I am irritated because I can’t save anyone with just one meal. My R100 note or R5 coin is not going to get them  off the street.

I am irritated because I don’t want to give away my hard earned cash. With the price of petrol and food, who even has spare change anymore?

My selfishness irritates me the most.

I swung back to catch the little girl and buy her raffle tickets, but the Spar manager was already herding her and her friends out the store. Proof, perhaps, that I wasn’t the only one disturbed by their requests for money for a vague cause. The yellow pages did not reveal what the raffle ticket could win you, or who the money was for.

I caught up with the trio in the parking lot and I bought a raffle ticket. The niggling doubt that perhaps I have been scammed is squashed deep down, drowned out by the memory of bringing home raffle sheets and my mother selling the tickets for me to her colleagues or, usually the night before the long-forgotten sheet was due to be handed in to my teacher, buying them all herself. My mother could afford do that but this little girl’s mother, who had so carefully ironed her young daughter’s skirt and painstakingly braided her hair in hundreds of little plaits, probably couldn’t. An assumption I base on the fact that the little girl, aged seven, was wandering around town unsupervised at 7 a.m. Her mother was probably at work already.

It’s not the first time I’ve bought raffle tickets from dirty, faded pieces of paper. I did it in Stellenbosch and was mocked for it by my mates, who were convinced it was a scam. A young woman carrying a baby stopped me in a parking lot once and asked for money for nappies. I gave her R20 and afterward felt sick about it. She looked like the kind of person who might take that money and spend it on drugs, but then who am I to know what that kind of person looks like?

I am so tired of the guilt. It’s not white guilt; it’s the guilt of being a privileged human in a city (I don’t even want to think about anything outside of Cape Town’s borders) filled with people who struggle. I have lived in this city for nearly 25 years. My whole life. I recognize beggars and traffic light vendors, I know where they should be and I notice when they’re not. I know how long they’ve been there. There’s the young man and his blind mother on Liesbeek Parkway. The boys with their bare feet and dirty blankets outside Gardens Shopping Centre. The mama and the one-legged man on Wynberg Hill. The guys selling plastic roses outside Roark Gym. The shy man with the sweet smile and unimposing nature, who sells  the Big Issue near Wynberg Park. I always buy it from him because of his smile.

My school could afford a good printer and good ink. Other schools make do with what they have and hope for the best.

This little girl with her raffle tickets, she gave me no reason to think she was anything but legitimate. It breaks my heart that I mistrust so easily. I guess, that we all do.


4 thoughts on “Spare Change, Like a Unicorn: The Guilt of Privilege

  1. I can really relate to this. Funny, how I actually go through this every day as there is not a day that goes past that we don’t encounter a beggar, a homeless child and the like.

  2. Pingback: femmegypsy finds: November 2013 | femmegypsy

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