There is a word that sticks in my memory after the 15th annual Nelson Mandela Lecture at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, last Saturday. That word is “dignity”.
The guest speaker, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J Mohammed, spoke about how, when Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, they took away his freedom but could not take away his dignity.
I thought about dignity earlier in the week when I took my sisters shopping in Mitchells Plain Town Centre, a place I had not visited in many years. The last time I went there was probably when we lived in the area in the early 1990s.
The centre resembles a place where the assumption is that poor people, who are the majority of its patrons, do not deserve any dignity.
Major retailers who cater for “upmarket” shoppers, such as Pick n Pay and Woolworths, as well as all the jewellery stores, have left the centre, to open up at the nearby Promenade shopping centre.
Their places have been taken by lesser-known retailers who sell goods at much lower prices. And this is where my sisters wanted me to take them to shop.
Parking has always been a problem at the Town Centre. But what has become worse is the complete disdain for the rules of the road. Taxis and private cars stop in the middle of the road, double- and triple-park, while those who are trying to be law-abiding citizens have to navigate their way taking into consideration the inconsiderate behaviour of others.
The parking area, on the edge of the Town Centre, was filled with eager young men offering to “look after” my car. Against what is anyone’s guess.
As we walked from the parking area towards the shops, I could not help but notice the pungent smell. I gave up trying to figure out what caused it, but it was not pleasant.
We had to watch where we walked because you could easily step into open manholes which, from the look of the dirt inside, appeared to have been open for months.
After we shopped, the content of our trolleys was checked against our till slips. This appeared to be common practice at most of the shops in the centre. We were not allowed to take the trolleys to the car. We had to place our bags into a trolley that “belonged” to a homeless person who was earning a living by taking people’s bags to their cars in her trolley.
There were several others who were making a living in the same way, all of them being managed by someone employed by the store.
The trolley carrying our shopping only had three working wheels, so we struggled towards our car which was a distance away.
We walked past several fruit and vegetable vendors and a few Rastafarians selling herbal cures for all kinds of ailments. At least, entrepreneurship was alive.
When we got to my car, there was a scramble among the eager youth about who had “looked after” it. Of course, whoever it was, was the one I had to pay.
I could not help but think about what an undignified experience shopping at Mitchells Plain Town Centre was compared to shopping at Cavendish Square, or even Kenilworth Centre. I had a choice. I chose to go there because I wanted to experience a place where I spent much of my time when I was younger.
But most people who shop there do not have the same choice. They have to swallow their dignity and make the most of their shopping experience. At least the prices are cheap. I don’t know about the quality.
I thought about the many times I had been confronted with similar situations where the dignity of poor people did not matter. I thought about going to work with my dad in the factory where, according to his payslip, he was a “labourer”.
I remember how angry I was when young white men called my dad by his first name and he called them “Mister”. I thought this is no way to speak to the head of our household, the breadwinner in our family, the man who tried to raise us with discipline and dignity. I am still angry about it, more than 40 years later.
It is so easy to give up your dignity, especially when you are poor and vulnerable. One of the things we fought for during the Struggle was for everyone to have dignity, to be treated with respect.
The way people are treated in Mitchells Plain Town Centre is probably not the worst in the world, but it is an indication of how many people live without dignity.
I wondered about the retailers who are making millions out of the people who shop in the town centre, without pumping anything back to uplift the centre.
What would happen if people no longer supported their shops? But where else would people go for bargains? It seems that bargains are more important than dignity for some. And the people who are making the money know this.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 2 December 2017)