Peeking Under the Line Essay

by Aragorn Eloff (originally published on Thoughtleader)

A rich man's heart is a ghetto

Earlier this week I received a Facebook invite for an event that, noble as it seems, left me feeling more than a little uncomfortable.

Here’s the invitation for “Live Under the Line“, an initiative by the religious organisation Common Good Foundation:

“Did you know that there are currently 13 million South Africans who live under the international poverty breadline? That means they’re living off R10 or less per day. That’s R10 for food, medicine, education, transport, shelter and clothing.

We’re calling you to identify with our neighbours in Cape Town and adopt the Live Under the Line Challenge. Ready?

WHEN: Monday 9 September at 6am – Wednesday 11 September 2013 at midnight.

WHAT: For three days consume no more than R10 per day on food and refreshments. That’s R10 per day for three days.”

Like choosing to live in a shack or experiencing racial segregation at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, it’s probably hard for most of us to see anything wrong with this small step towards understanding the historical and contemporary plights of poor and working class people, mostly of colour, in South Africa. I can’t help but wonder, however, exactly what kind of understanding is cultivated through these kinds of feel-good initiatives and what assumptions underpin them.

As a proviso — and lest I come across as a complete cynic, paralysed by over-analysis — I should make it clear that I’m not against people trying to eat a healthy, filling diet on R10 a day. It’s just that I don’t see how this type of personal lifestyle experiment allows us to “identify with our neighbours” in any kind of meaningful way, nor am I particularly optimistic about what, if anything, will come from 72 hours of self-imposed dietary ascetism. However, as I do not wish to demotivate the well-intentioned people — including a good few Facebook friends — who took part in this event, I’ll limit myself to some simple observations.

To begin with, I think it’s important for any of the ostensibly middle-class folks who ‘lived under the line” for three days to consider how much more complicated the issue is than how much money each of us has to spend on food. For instance, most participants probably shopped for their food at well-stocked middle-class supermarkets and drove their groceries home in their cars. Once home they most likely refrigerated what they needed to keep fresh over the three days, storing the rest in spacious cupboards. They prepared each “poverty meal” in a well-equipped kitchen with a decent stove and oven, washing the pesticides off their vegetables (they usually eat organic, of course) under the clean, running water that seems to flow endlessly from their kitchen taps. Meals were consumed at a well-lit dining room table, or perhaps in a warm, comfortable lounge over an episode of whatever was showing on DStv. Dishes were piled up in the sink, or dishwasher perhaps, to be dealt with the next day (perhaps there’s a domestic worker to take care of that though) and, bellies full, our poverty dieters spent a leisurely evening in a safe, comfortable middle-class house or apartment followed by adequate sleep in a comfortable bed. Finally, at the end of the third day, some participants probably treated themselves after their 72 hours of abject poverty with a meal at a local restaurant, coupled with a cab sav from one of the local wine farms.

The stark contrast I’m alluding to should be abundantly clear: if we really want to “identify with our neighbours” (click here to see who your neighbours are) we need to consider the context within which they obtain and consume their food. Without running water, electricity, access to decent shops (which requires transport, which requires money), space for storage, refrigeration and decent kitchen equipment, it’s little surprise that poor South Africans tend to get by on largely non-nutritive foodstuffs or “empty calories” consisting primarily of refined carbs, fats (especially trans-fatty acids) and sugar. Food geography issues aside (many poor South Africans around urban areas live in what are termed “food deserts”, i.e. areas where there are physical and economic barriers to accessing adequate nutritious foods), this reliance on what most of us think of as “comfort foods” makes perfect sense when we consider the high level of stress and exhaustion experienced by the average township dweller: the threat of evictions, the high levels of interpersonal and state violence, poor access to healthcare, the dull monotony of low-paying, menial and increasingly irregular work, the constant sense of being a second-class, throwaway citizen… who wouldn’t resort to easy to prepare, energy-dense and nutrient-poor quick-fix foods in the face of this, regardless of the long-term health consequences?

This is still insufficient. Regardless of how much time we spend poring over the details of the lives of marginalised others we will, most of us, never truly know what it is like to be on the far receiving end of capitalism every day of our lives. We will not experience the feelings of powerlessness and inferiority; we will not feel the structural racism of the “world class” city we live in every time we attempt to navigate beyond the boundaries of the areas we call home; we will not feel the anxiety and desperation that sometimes give way to deep nihilistic futility; we will not bring up children at risk of cognitive deficiency and stunted growth from nutritional deficiencies, nor will we feel the effects of nutritional deficiencies on our own minds and bodies; we will not worry where our child’s next meal is coming from. We can try. We can “live under the line” for a month or we can extend it to a year and move into a shack of our very own, eschewing all the luxuries of middle-class life. We can experience an existence without electricity and running water and learn a few words of isiXhosa but we cannot, for all our resolve, erase the one simple fact that marks all of this experience: we can get out whenever we want.

Few will make such an exerted effort, however. Instead, whatever experience we do feel we have gained through these slightly voyeuristic and altogether tentative forays into the lives of others we will seek to apply in imparting our paternalistic wisdom. We will demonstrate how we could in fact eat on R10 a day, as though anyone should have to figure out how to eat on R10 a day while others eat on hundreds. We will tell the poor to simply grow their own food, reminding them that permaculture allows a family to be fed from a patch of land the size of a front door. We won’t stop to ask why less than 2% of people in Khayelitsha do in fact grow their own food, nor will we ask any of the more difficult questions around land use. We will talk about plant-based diets, as though shack life isn’t daunting enough without having to learn about nutritional science. We will tell the poor, or a TEDx audience at least, that we’re launching eco-friendly iShacks, without understanding what it means when someone replies that this is like putting lipstick on a pig. We will sign petitions asking the DA not to rezone the Philippi Horticultural Area, without recognising how economic and political power relations render this kind of exercise in nominal democracy futile. We will ask why the poor came to the cities in the first place, when there is so much land back in the rural areas…

What we will not ask, what we will never allow ourselves to ask, is how in the midst of all this there can still be golf courses and wine farms and sprawling Constantia mansions. Nor will very many of us ask ourselves which side we would be on if, one day, a different politics of the belly begins to speak and it is deemed time to take them back.

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