Crushing Poverty

Today our focus shifted from the past––the struggle against Apartheid and the reconciliation work that’s still underway––to the present. After Apartheid, poverty has deepened and the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than ever. The dehumanizing effects of poverty have slithered into the space left by the end of the dehumanizing institutionalized racism of Apartheid.

We met with Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders who are fighting poverty together, we toured the Khayelitsha (kie-a-LEET-sha) township on the outskirts of the city, and we visited a shelter for homeless girls in downtown Cape Town, where the girls run when they flee abuse at home in the township. It was an emotionally overwhelming day; the pain of looking poverty in the eye is always hard. This is poverty on a scale I’ve never seen.

And don’t get me wrong––I’ve seen pictures of this kind of poverty. I’ve seen videos. We all have. But standing in this place in person was a completely different matter. I felt my wealth and privilege as never before. I felt the astronomical distance between the reality these people know and my reality. I felt the monstrous size of the problem that relegates huge numbers of people to living conditions like this. I felt shame and sadness. I felt hopeless.

I took hundreds of photos to try to provide a taste of this world none of us will ever know. Here are a few, though I hesitate to post them at all, because they don’t come close to portraying the reality of this kind of slum. Please try to imagine what this world is like for our brothers and sisters who live here, whose homes and businesses are pictured here. Try to wrap your brain around your children or grandchildren growing up here.

The townships are vast sections of housing for the very poorest people, who are inevitably people of color. Some of the housing is what the South Africans call “formal”, meaning very simple one-room houses that look like what you might expect. Most of it is what is kindly called “informal”, that is, shacks cobbled together from scrap sheet metal and wood, crammed together around very narrow dirt ‘streets’, with dirt floors, no running water or sewer, and improvised electricity. Toilets are sometimes a row of government-built outhouse-style toilet closets (a good walk for many neighbors), a port-o-pottie, or a bucket in the home. When it rains, the ‘streets’ are incredibly muddy and flooding is a regular occurrence. When it is dry and the winds pick up, sand blows mercilessly. It is wrong to call this ‘housing’. 

A close-up of the ‘street’. Most of the children don’t have shoes.

The roof. When there aren’t nails, rocks hold it down.

And yet these are communities. Some create businesses to serve their neighbors and make a living.

Tony’s Shoe Repairs Centre

A dressmaker & beauty shop. (Yes, that’s a shipping container.) 

The sign on the ‘building’ says “Cash Store”.

Many clearly take pride in their home and do what they can to create a dignified, even beautiful place.

Those are bottles buried to make a flowerbed border.

And, of course, there are the people themselves. They deserve conditions like this no more than you or I. And the children…

I’m not sure what drew this boy to Ryan, but I’m certain it made Ryan’s day.

Tonight I grieve the state of our human family that such inequality exists in our world. I am intimidated by the challenge of doing anything about it. I am deeply saddened and ashamed that I am part of the system that creates this and have benefited from the privilege I have that these sisters and brothers don’t. I don’t know how to solve these problems, but I believe the first step is allowing reality to pierce my heart. Jesus suffers for and with these children of God. And I––we––can, too. That’s a beginning of healing for me, and because of who God is, participation in the reconciliation that God is bringing about.


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