As a German spending one autumn in Cape Town, I discovered how privileged I am in terms of money. I simply never had to worry about it on an existential level, which in itself is a huge privilege. Some Capetonians deduced from my nationality that I am rich; a logic that had never occurred to me before. I certainly wouldn’t consider myself to be rich back home; but they did have a point when comparing me, or any other person from a western European country for that matter, to the average person living in Khayelitsha or one of the other townships near Cape Town.
One day, some friends and I were strolling down Cape Town’s Long Street, admiring its Victorian buildings with wrought-iron balconies decorating their facades and peeping in the many bookshops and fashion boutiques that make Long Street one of the most interesting places in the city. It’s busy any time of the day and particularly popular amongst night owls, attracting them with its many bars and restaurants. I hadn’t witnessed Long Street by daylight before. At night, there are security guards stationed along the street to guarantee the drunk partygoer’s safety. Although we’ve been told to be careful since Cape Town can be a dangerous place, especially for tourists like us, I had never seen any reason to worry about my wellbeing so far.
As in pretty much any other major city, homeless people in Cape Town are asking pedestrians for money; even more so if you have the complexion of Disney’s Snow White and can’t disguise the fact that you’re a tourist who, naturally, has to have money because who would travel to a far-off country without any money to spend?
It didn’t take long before a homeless man in a well-worn Springbok Jersey approached us, and his senses didn’t let him down because we did have money, we just weren’t particularly inclined to share it with him. He was remarkably rude and I can’t imagine that this kind of approach was any more successful with other people. He was also as persistent as he was bold and while the others were seeking refuge in the nearest shop, I decided to tell him how I felt about his behavior. After all, this person was about to spoil my impression of Capetonians who I so far had found to be the most likable and friendly people I have ever encountered.
This man was not the first homeless person I talked to; in fact, I had pleasant conversations with others before and occasionally handed out whatever change I had left. In those instances, I feel like there is a constant debate going on between the angel and the devil on my shoulders, arguing about whether I should or should not share a coin or two. Ultimately, the devil always points out, and so does the Western Cape Government on their website, that giving money directly to a homeless person will be no help to change their situation. This is a valid point and makes the devil seem fairly reasonable. What am I contributing to by giving out money, is it supper for the malnourished son I’m being told about or a bottle of Black Label for the father?
In reality, considerations like these hardly matter to me because I base my decision almost solely on whether I like the person asking or not. In this case, I did not like the person asking at all and when I told him he won’t be receiving any money from me, his tactics changed. We faced each other and he suddenly became quiet. His stare pierced me and I just now realized how old this person must have been. I couldn’t tell his exact age, but the wrinkles in his face told me that he grew up during the horrors of apartheid. As a black man in a racially segregated South Africa, he must have suffered injustices I couldn’t even imagine. The only difference between us, the sole reason why I was the one in the possession of money while he was the one asking me for it, is the difference between being born white in a reunited Germany and being born black in Apartheid South Africa. How could I deny him money when only the arbitrariness of birth determined our situation?
He started apologizing for his behavior, crying, telling me how fucked up everything was. I listened to him and I believed him. „Man,“ he said, „sometimes I feel like killing someone.“ I don’t know if he was merely communicating his troubled emotional state, but I sensed the suggestion of a threat in his voice. He reached into his pocket, grabbing something. It might have been anything, a handkerchief to dry his tears or a picture of his son to show me that this person indeed existed and he wasn’t lying to me. But at this moment, I was sure it would turn out to be a knife; and although I’ve never heard of a tourist being stabbed in bright daylight on one of the most frequented streets in Cape Town over an amount of money not even sufficient to buy a lollipop, I was convinced that it was about to happen to me right then and there.
I remembered that I still had an R5 coin in my pocket, so I wouldn’t even have to take out my wallet; an enterprise I didn’t want to risk only an arm's length away from someone I suspected to be in the process of robbing me. I quickly did the math and concluded that my life was worth 25 cents and so a coin of 9.5 grams changed its owner. The man seemed perplexed about the sudden appearance of the round piece of metal in his hand and when he had gathered his senses again to ask me if I didn’t have any more money, I was already one foot in the closest store.
In retrospect, I don’t believe this man would have done me any harm. What bothers me about this incident was not the loss of R5, but the fact that I didn’t give him the money because I decided that R5 were of much greater value for him than they were for me, but because I felt forced to give it to him. Of course, I could have given him the money right away so there wouldn’t have been any need for him to threaten me in the first place. But I was so caught up in the patronizing idea of teaching him a lesson, showing him how to properly ask a person for money instead of insulting them and expecting a reward for it. It’s none of my business how this man goes around asking people for money. If I had been reasonable, I would simply have declined his request, kept on walking and thereby would have avoided the entire unpleasant situation that followed.
The causes for homelessness are diverse and complex, and often tragic. In Germany, the majority of homeless people are unable to find new employment after losing their former job and consequently lose their homes as well. Whatever the cause, it can happen to anyone. I’ll never know what put the man in the Springbok jersey in the situation he was in; and even if I knew, I wouldn’t be in the position to judge whether his story qualifies him for receiving charity or not.
The issue of how to properly deal with homeless persons asking for money remains, and I know that giving them money depending on whether they seem likable to me or not is far from an adequate approach. My standard modus operandi nowadays is a shy smile combined with an apologetic shrug to communicate there’s nothing to get from me, but that doesn’t seem ideal either. Whenever I have something edible on me I share it, but I decided to refrain from giving away money directly. Since I’m not in the position to make any helpful donations, the least thing I can do is reflect the true worth of what I have and understand how valuable five Rand in my pocket can be.