A few weeks back I was on a writing assignment just outside East London in the Eastern Cape. During my visit, I was deeply disturbed to discover an incident that had taken place mere kilometres from where I was staying. A waiter experienced some verbal abuse from a group of teenagers and was then left a R4 tip and with a derogatory note saying it was for “hungry Africans’. You can read a little more about the story online here.
Recently I listened to an interview with Teju Cole, who paraphrased social activist James Baldwin, saying “to be conscious is to be in a state of rage.” The incident left me unsettled and enraged. I knew that I wanted to do something about it. I first spoke through the incident with a few friends and then a journalist who had reported on the story. I shared my frustration, and also an idea that I had.
Before leaving East London to fly back to Cape Town, I stopped at the Spur, with the intention of meeting Xolani. Unfortunately he was not on shift when I arrived and so I left a note, and a tip that had been collected from eleven friends – including three people across the globe that I have never met. Here’s what my simple note read:
“Xolani, I’m sorry that I was not able to meet you today. Please accept this small tip of R4444 ‘for hungry Africans’. Because what this country needs more of, is hungry Africans.
Hungry for knowledge.
Hungry for justice.
Hungry for hope.
Hungry to know that they are seen, known and valued.
Please know that you are seen, known, and valued. Please don’t let the bigoted actions of a few make you doubt yourself or doubt that there are good people out there. This tip is from a group of eleven people, none of whom know you or even each other – but wanted to express their frustration but also support for you.”
Please hear me on something very important. I’m not wanting to play the hero card here by sharing this nor attract self-attention. It would indeed be a chilling chastisement of our times if people had to be honoured for doing what it right. That should be a given. I’m also fully aware that giving money in this instance doesn’t really solve the larger issue and may just be dressing a wound.
My intent in Xolani’s case is to annex his unfortunate narrative with a second, and hopefully better ending. I was reminding myself – and hopefully through these few words a few others – that we don’t always have to accept the status quo. In fact, religious and creedal systems aside, it’s a simple civic duty to stand for what is right, particularly when it involves standing up for those who don’t have a voice.
I’m fully aware that some of our deeper societal problems cannot be solved by merely giving money. In fact, I believe rather wholeheartedly, that the solution to poverty lies not in the deep pockets of cheerful givers, nor the well-oiled machinations of well-meaning programs. Rather, through changed and transformed hearts.
We live in an age where it is no longer enough to simply be good – we have to do good. Through ordinary people’s hearts being broken by the reality of poverty, allowing themselves to be transformed and then placing their heart, hands, and feet in intellectually and relationally uncomfortable places. By not making sweeping statements about how others should be acting, or how they should be thinking, without first listening to their story.
I vividly recall being silenced by a quote from Shaun Johnson’s The Native Commissioner: “If you could read the secret history of your enemies, you should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostilities.” I long for a time when there is more listening, deeper understanding, and heart transformations that lead to transforming actions – but more than longing for it – I’ve decided to create it one small act at a time and thankfully I’m not alone.
That’s why we left a R4444 tip.
* Pseudonym used