I generally never come back with one item...it is always a grocery bag full of goodies. And tonight was no different. I reached the till and ended up behind a blue-collar worker in the queue. I was second in line to pay. I did not pay any attention to my fellow shopper for a minute or two, then start wondering why the queue was not moving given we were only two in it. The cashier too seemed irritable. I then noticed why we were waiting.
My fellow shopper is buying a piece of fresh chicken (the breast portion) at a cost of R26,22. He is carefully creating stacks of 10c coins. Each stack adds up to R1. After the 10c pieces, he follows it up with 20c ones, then 50c ones. By the time he is done, he has counted out R8. He was not going to make the R26,22 required to pay for the chicken breast. His hand movements became more animated as he frantically searched his pockets. Out came a soiled, plastic bank bag. He then moved to look for more money therein.
By this time I'm racked with guilt. Here I was, standing in a queue waiting to pay for a couple of packets of potato crisps, Magnum cones and chocolate, and in front of me, a blue collar worker was scrapping the lining-of-his-pockets to buy a piece of chicken for supper. The Magnum cones alone cost more than the chicken. I felt sick. I took some of my "groceries" and placed it at the side of the till. I then asked the cashier to stop counting, looked at the man and offered to pay for the chicken. He stood there, frozen and awkward. I reiterated I would pay for the chicken. The cashier confirmed my intent. His face turned from stress-filled to delight. He thanked me profusely and couldn't stop smiling. I sheepishly returned his gaze. I felt sick. The cashier just looked away. I'm not sure what she was feeling. I paid for my luxuries and the chicken. No further words were exchange between the three of us. We simply went our separate ways and the cashier continued with her work.
Why am I relating this event? Because this week, STATS SA released its latest statistics on poverty levels in South Africa. The stats body was celebrating the drop in the levels of poverty in the country, and that this figure now stood at 20%. This means effectively that 80% of the population is "not-in-poverty". One of the reasons for the drop is the ever expanding social grant system. Translated into figures, roughly 10 million people are still living in poverty! This is staggering! Translated using the learner numbers in the Western Cape alone, 20% would mean 200 000 children! What are we celebrating? How can we celebrate, when one person struggles to pay R26,22 for a piece of chicken and another can spend the same amount happily on potato crisps?
By 2017 we will be spending R300 billion p.a. on education alone. Currently 47% of our learners don't complete their schooling. Never mind those who do complete their schooling with a certificate that has no economic benefit. It is a social time-bomb. Social grants won't fix the problem. Making sure each child can become an active citizen in our economy and secure themselves a job relevant to their skills set, will. Last night's incident has again highlighted in a very real way that we are failing the poor, the marginalized. But we don't have to. Making sure our education system works, and works well, will make sure we avert a revolution by the poor. Lest we forget, Maria Antoinette couldn't appease the masses with cake!