Text: Mbe Mbhele
Artwork: Sam Hlengethwa
Poverty is a relentless beast that refuses to die. Since it refuses to die it makes sense that it should be avoided at all costs. Perhaps not at all costs because often the cost is your life. You sell it to the highest bidder and you are dead, figuratively and sometimes literally all in the name of trying to avoid poverty. When you carry the burden of a dark skin the threat of poverty is always looming over you. You become its fugitive, its always chasing and chasing and you are always running and running. You stop living because your life turns into continuous attempts to avoid it. Sometimes you resort to pretence, pretending that you no longer fear its claw. For god knows it is shameful to be poor, rather pretend than concede. So sometimes you pretend that you have arrived. Tall glasses of champagne, you hold them high, high art galleries you attend them proudly. It's Biggie Smalls who said fake it till you make it but truth is, making it is not guaranteed.
This is not a new conversation, we always talk about poverty. Hell we have a lived experience of poverty. Politicians do it daily, especially when its time to go to the ballot. Philanthropists use it to further their motives. Fuck, people use poverty to try and escape poverty. The people of god with their mandatory tithes, your sociology professor with his research and perhaps I your favourite author with my ramblings. Despite its overtheorization poverty remains this elusive thing that is omnipresent, well at least in the case of black people. Here I am paraphrasing the millions of black radical scholars who have tried to give an account of the black experience. Fanon said it best, they are rich because they are white and the inverse is true. We are poor because we are black.
It matters not how far you have climbed the social and the economic ladder. If you are black your position there is always fraught with danger. Which is to say you can have the illusion that you are rich but that can change as quickly as Cape Town weather. The soccer stars that we grew up idolizing who seemed like they had made it are eating from the dustbins now. The many artists who were all over our TV screens didn't have money to bury themselves. I don’t even want to speak about business moguls and top politicians turned paupers. Of course it is easier for one to blame it on their recklessness but a close reading of their cases show that there is a strong relationship between their fate and their blackness. The position of a rich black person is a precarious one. Here I am not homogenizing black people but quite honestly black people who are able to sustain their wealth are not a norm but an aberration. A truly wealthy black person is an oxymoron or at the very least a temporary illusion.
Many refuse to accept this reality and in the quest of attempting to refute it (even to themselves) they engage in vulgar display of opulence. I imagine a skhothane coming out of a two room dladla in the township wearing Versace and Carvella. Of course there are elements of culture and resistance to this but the point being driven home is that we are subconsciously aware of our inferiority qua threat of poverty such that we always feel the need to find creative ways of concealing it or resisting it. Maybe the skhothane example is bad, old news really. Here is another, the black middle class engages in the same debauchery but theirs is draped in Zara or sometimes fake Louis bags. Have you seen Instagram or Twitter these days? Do not misread this characterization with that of liberals and racists such as Johan Rupert who claim we are poor because of our indulgence in opulence. My characterization is quite the contrary, we display false opulence precisely because we are poor. Beneath that veil of fancy clothes and expensive cars is anxiety and fear of knowing that the shadow of poverty always looms over us.
Perhaps this is why many of us feel the need to show of our ‘achievements’ under the pretext of inspiring others. We all know the popular caption ‘it's possible black child’. But what really is possible? Assimilating? Vacations? Graduations? Apartments in the North? Is it really possible or are those amenities that can only be attained by a few and that will remain a mirage for the poor black majority of this country? The answer is simple, it is not possible black child until we change the structural make up of this country. The black middle class is just used as a buffer to give the illusion that black people can make it but reality is that the structural make up of this country makes it impossible for blacks to succeed regardless of how much they hustle or work hard. So fuck these degrees because throughout the years they have not helped us map out ways to ensure that the millions of our brothers and sisters break free from the poverty and oppression that continues to ensnare them. Hear me, I am in no way suggesting that education is unimportant but what I am saying is that because of the race relations of this country an educated kaffir is still a kaffir, this we will always be reminded.
Let me get to the point I have been attempting to drive home. Not so long ago I got my results from Wits and in the same week I got evicted from a shack I was renting. I went hither and thither trying to find temporary shelter to no avail. Alas! It started raining, I was outside in the rain with no place to go. It dawned to me that my blackness is inescapable. It matters not where you are and what you think you have achieved your pigment and the burden it carries will always find a way to protrude, ooze out like pus. This is of course shameful and embarrassing. Something must be done about it I agree but the quagmire we are in might just be too deep. I don't want to take the pessimistic stance but if we are to stretch our imaginations and map out better ways of resisting we ought to speak the uncomfortable truth. So Ricky Rick was probably wrong when he said ‘usaban' usema suburbs(in)’ for it does not matter where you are, the threat of being poor, violated, dishonoured follows you everywhere when you are black.