How it started

25 Nov

Sarah with car

I drive a Range Rover. In a little more than a week’s time, I have to hand it back. For 2 years I’ve been part of the Pulse of the City campaign and in December this year it comes to an end. Before I give back the car, I want to try an experiment.

Johannesburg, South Africa, is full of three things:

  • Cars. (Especially expensive cars.)
  • Traffic lights (or, as we like to call them,  robots).
  • And beggars.

At red robots, all three come together. Usually, Joburg motorists ignore the beggars. We’ve become very good at not seeing them.

A lot of the time, I ignore them too. I wear sunglasses so I can avoid making eye contact with them. I feel guilty, but at the same time, I resent giving them something. It’s complicated: I drive a luxury vehicle, so it looks like I have loads of cash to spare when in fact I don’t – I quit my job at the beginning of this year partly because I didn’t have a car to pay off.

But this time, I’m going to do the opposite. I’m going to let go of holding back. Before I hand the car back, I’m going to give to every beggar I encounter – and not just something small, like R5, but something big enough to surprise them. Maybe even buy a day of happiness in a world where there is too little of it about. Probably hubris, I know, but hey.

The idea came about after ignoring yet another beggar and feeling guilty about it. That’s when the thought occurred to me: what if I stop hoping they’ll go away if I pretend they’re not there? What if I open my window to let the world I want to keep out, in? What if I simply let go of all of those usual reasons – it’s not in my budget, I don’t have cash with me, I’m in a bad mood – and gave away more than I’d ever normally consider rational?

Now, there are obvious potential problems here. For one thing, this campaign could be seen as preachy and self-righteous. (I’m giving away money; therefore, so should you, you miserable luxury car-driving misanthropes.) Also, while the money will help in the short term, I’m not actually doing anything sustainable to solve a massive problem that goes to the heart of South Africa’s social problems.

But I can start a conversation. And I can tell the stories. Because a story is often the only thing that people have to sell.

Let’s see what happens.


6 Responses to “How it started”

  1. Puneet November 26, 2012 at 8:47 am #


    This is Indian-Scientologist!

    I don’t give any beggar anything, except an ‘advice’ – “you need to work & you don’t find work on robots, you were not born to be a beggar, so, stop being one” and, I don’t feel guilty about it because I feel I will discount their ability to earn it, which everyone has, no matter what!

    Crime is defined as ‘no exchange’ & anyone encourage is part of the problem, not solution.

    You still don’t hate me yet, right?

  2. PM November 26, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    Interesting idea.

    do you expect anything in return? are you intending to engage these people, to interview/talk to them? do you want information from them? do you want appreciation/thanks from them? or is this all about you–and what might change in you because you are doing this?

    what i am most interested in is how you will feel about it at the end. did giving make you feel any differently than ignoring?

    I admit that I try to avoid giving in these situations, because, like you, i doubt their veracity. But i do feel dirty as a result–because i am also not being honest with them, just as they are not being honest with me.

    • Sarah Britten November 27, 2012 at 10:03 am #

      You raise some interesting questions. Earlier this month I filmed video footage of 8 beggars and interviewed them; I’ll be posting their stories this week. (I still need to finalize the edit – really need to figure out how to function without sleep.) I do think that actually listening to people gives them something in the way of dignity, which is part of what motivates me. And there’s the power to lift their spirits for a moment or two. Perhaps even a day. Initially, I wanted to do this because I wondered what impression my meanness was creating for the brand of car I drive, and I wanted to make up for that.

      It’s as much about how others respond to this as how I feel about doing it, which is also why I’ve left it open-ended. The last thing I want is to be preachy. I’m interested in what this might catalyse in others.

      • PM November 28, 2012 at 2:36 am #

        I like that point–how listening to them might make them feel.

        Everyone has a story, and while you (and I) have an opportunity to share yours (via modern technology), these guys have to rely on the old fashioned method. You are giving them the opportunity to have their story shared with a wider audience. And i am really glad you are consciously trying NOT to be preachy–that would be way too much.

        When you engage them, do you talk to them about this project?. It might be interesting at some point to follow up by getting back to them and showing some of them what you have done, and how people have reacted. But I’d wait on that a bit.

  3. Jo November 27, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    It’s a cool idea.. perhaps especially because you don’t seem to have any particular expectation as to the outcome or result.

    I have never driven a luxury car, but I guess here in SA driving a car at all places one is the “haves” category. I used to be incredibly rude to beggars. And then one day, perhaps about three years ago, I just… changed?

    Now, I give food if I have it (even go buy food and bring it back occasionally). I seldom give money though. And when I have neither, I ask how they are doing, listen, and wish them well. Because I reckon the very least I CAN always give is my attention.

    And if the guy is fibbing about his circumstances? Well, if he is, he isn’t hurting ME if I try to help in whatever small way. So… *shrug*

    • Africa far and wide November 28, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

      I think it’s a great idea and I admire your courage to do it. Regardless of what your motivation is, these people have a story to tell and through your blog, an audience that is taking the time listen, something I feel the world is lacking in general. It’s very easy to put beggars in a ‘little box,’ tell them to get a job and make some real money. There are thousands of circumstances/experiences that lead people to beg for a living, and thousands of them who do not have any option. And it’s those people that we need to know about. Why are they in this situation?

      Through your enquiring and the information you find, your campaign will highligt many recurring problems that need to be faced. And possibly send you in one particular direction that could have long term benefits to many people who do not have a voice.

      Best of luck, be safe and well done for taking on this task. 🙂

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