Early yesterday morning I was walking through the cold slightly wet
streets of Cape Town, supposedly one of Africa’s greatest and modern cities,
minding my own business when a complete stranger called me an asshole. I was on
my way to the British Embassy to apply for my UK visa so I was lost in thought
and mangled by my own nerves out of fear that it might get rejected on the
grounds that I might be found to be a terrorist – which of course would be a
complete surprise considering what I know of myself but perhaps not so
surprising considering how malleable the definition of a terrorist is.

Anyways, so there I was walking through these streets, a stranger
amongst even stranger strangers, when a man just decided that I was an asshole.
Of course there would have to be a good reason you would wonder, since people
really have to earn the miserable honour of being called an asshole, otherwise
people wouldn’t bother calling complete bastards assholes. The word would cease
to have an effect and maybe it would be better to call somebody who has done
something unsporting and completely underhanded a complete and utter loaf. But I

The reason the man called me that unfortunate word was because while I
was walking he had shuffled up next to me in a hurried pace and in practiced
mumbles asked me if I could spare exactly ninety cents so that he could buy
himself some bread. I with very little regard barely gave him a look and just
mumbled an equally practiced response back and that was when he decided to call
me an asshole. The exchange went something like this:

Strange man: “Sorry brother can you spare ninety cents I just want to
buy some bread to eat?”

Me: “No sorry, I’m okay.”

Strange Man: “Listen to this asshole, I tell him I am hungry for
bread and he tells me HE is okay. Bloody asshole!”

Now reading my response you might agree with this charming stranger
that perhaps my response was not the correct one and deserved a somewhat crass
response, perhaps dumbass. There is a significant difference between a dumbass
and an asshole, for one a dumbass can be forgiven for doing things unknowingly
while an asshole may never be forgiven whether they do things knowingly or
unknowingly. The reason I said something so lame are actually quite simple and
are the result of not thinking too much and giving an automatic response to
something that has become so commonplace that one doesn’t even give it much
thought any longer.

If you have been through the streets of Cape Town lately on foot you
will know that at every street corner there are people standing there handing
out flyers advertising everything from love potions, instant “pain free”
abortions, penis enlargements to well paying jobs that require no education or
actual work to be done, amazing study opportunities at unheard of institutions
or ways of having all you debt taken away to some black hole in a far off
galaxy beyond even your imagination.

These people have little regard for whether you are interested or not
and even putting your hands deep in your pockets and stiffing your neck to
avoid eye contact cannot save you from having at least three flyers stuck in
your face at every corner. It gets a bit much to say the least. Many years ago I
used to take every single flyer handed to me because I thought it rude not to,
even though I always ended up throwing them away in the nearest bin. However, I
no longer have such scruples and feel the people handing out the flyers should
know when a person is not interested and leave them alone.

Anyways, so this is the reason I unfortunately told the begging man
that I am okay when he was asking me for money. I had been ignoring people with
flyers all morning that I automatically responded to the beggar as if he was
one of these people. It was with a sense of irritation and pure frustration at
being bombarded with the same thing constantly in one morning at almost every
turn I made that led to me being so dismissive with the man.

However, as I think about this I realise that there was more to this.
Another thing one sees plenty of on the cold wet streets of Cape Town is people
begging for loose change and they seem to have increased since the last time I was
in the city some three months ago. Beggars of every race, gender, shape and
size coming towards you with cupped hands and pleading faces. What is most
unfortunate is that many of them – such as the one I encountered – are aggressive
about it and do it with little piety, humility or even genuine pleading. It is
almost as if they are angry at you for having to beg you and now you must give
or else you are justifying their anger.

I cannot say if there is an agreed upon standard of begging or a
guide of do’s and do not’s, but I do know that there are certain things that
are unacceptable. Many of the beggars one sees on the streets seem to do it
half heartedly and curse you for not helping. Others do not even open their
mouths and just look at you with that blankness that I am sure to them is
pleading but to you it is distancing you even further. The more one sees this
the more one feels frustrated and irritated and then one starts trying to block
it out of their reality.

I often give money to beggars, tip waiters, car guards and petrol
attendants generously and not make much of a deal it. I am therefore left
feeling incredulous when I am faced with many beggars all in one morning all
with the same line and when one eventually calls me an asshole for ignoring his
plight. The question that comes springing to mind is, will it ever be enough? Even
if one tries to do good one is left feeling like a selfish plonker because it
isn’t everyday that one can be so giving, especially when the misfortunes of
others can make you feel selfish. All one can think is that it is just the
human condition…