Poverty, inequality and virtuousness in South Africa

The inadequacy of charity in tackling the legacies of apartheid and colonialism.

Image credit Lorenia via Flickr (CC).

Nkosikho Mbele is a petrol attendant at a Shell garage located on the N2 highway, near Makhaza in the Western Cape. No one would have noticed him until local news site, News24, reported on 28 May 2019 that Mbele had paid R100 (about US$8) of his own money to cover a customer, Monet van Deventer’s petrol bill. She had forgotten her bank cards at home. In response to Mbele’s kindness, Van Deventer set up a fundraising campaign to raise R100,000 to go to Mbele’s benefit.

Not surprisingly, South Africa’s media became obsessed with the story for the obvious reasons: Mbele is black and Van Deventer is white. Mbele is obviously working class and Van Deventer, middle class. South Africa is a racially divided and the story, for South Africa’s liberal media, pointed to some kind of hope for contact “across the color line.” As this story was unfolding, it was framed in a number of predictable ways: Mbele was hailed a selfless individual; Van Deventer was rendered a virtuous person; and that this was the kinds of behavior, which South Africans of all walks of life ought to emulate. And, finally, “despite everything,” we should have hope in the human spirit.

Initial reports indicated that the R100,000 target for the campaign was quickly reached. In the end, a total of over R400,000 had been raised on Mbele’s behalf. In addition, oil company Shell promised to give away half a million Rands to any charity of Mbele’s choice.

Beyond the hype, the story highlights some of the most critical questions that South Africans—after twenty-five years of democracy—ought to be publicly engaging with: about race, privilege, class and the inadequacy of charity in tackling the legacies of apartheid and colonialism.

As noted earlier, the media played up the generosity of both Mbele and Van Deventer as something to strive for. The fundraising campaign was lauded all round. That Mbele should not be having people raise money on his behalf in order for him to have a better life or that his was the fate of millions of poor, black South Africans, hardly came up (except on social media).

The most recent statistics indicate that 49.9% of adult South Africans live below the upper-bound poverty line. When breaking these down according to race and gender, black people and women are mostly affected. South Africa’s official statistics service, Stats SA, reported that in 2006 approximately 91.5% of poor people were black. This rose to 92.5% in 2009 and reached a peak in 2011 when the numbers increased to 93.3%.

One major trope in the whole saga is the everyday “kindness” performed by black people like Mbele. This is very common in interactions between white and black, particularly poor, working class people, in South Africa in which the onus is on black people to go the extra mile. It comes as no surprise that the beneficiary of this kindness is always white. At the same time, as is always the case in situations like these, it became an opportunity to demonstrate white paternalism: Van Deventer was predictably hailed as a virtuous individual who demonstrated what it means to be a warrior for the human spirit: she’s a good person who for no reason decided to do good to another human.

Even more startling was that Mbele wasn’t trusted to manage the money himself. It was initially reported that Mbele would not have direct access to the money raised on his behalf, which was to be put into a trust for the education of his children. Someone would manage it for him. A number of South Africans objected to this on social media. Shell’s decision to rather donate to a charity of Mbele’s choice, as opposed to directly improving his life (by say, paying him a living wage so he could feed his family and take care of their health and educational needs without charity) was also widely called out.

Beyond Mbele, this story reminded us of how whiteness and capital have historically operated when it comes to their ability to weaponize moments like this. In the case of Shell, we got to see how the exploitation of Mbele’s story became something they decided to capitalize on. The same logic used in hailing Van Deventer, a virtuous individual, was also applied to Shell. What was ignored is the fact that both Van Deventer and Shell, entities when accounting for South Africa’s history on the role of capital and the privileging of white people as it was the case with apartheid policies, can be held responsible for the condition under which Mbele finds himself. Even more, Mbele’s case reflects larger processes: how Africans are trusted to decide on their own futures as we’ve seen in the struggles to repatriate African artifacts from European museums (the arguments are usually that Africans don’t have the capacity to look after returned artifacts), which is also the way development aid operates.

One last point worth making based on this story is that a probe worth having is around the failure of white people as a social group, outside state policies, to proactively contribute towards the reduction of poverty and closing the racial inequality gap. They have demonstrated their unwillingness to understand that South Africa’s colonial history and the effects of race-based apartheid policies means that they have an inherent moral responsibility.

And even if it was the case that they were proactively doing something about the country’s levels of inequality and poverty, it should never be regarded as kindness but a mere recognition of their being beneficiaries to a system that engineered conditions under which the majority of black people who are poor live in.

Further Reading