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Monday, April 25, 2011

Obstacles for the poor

Two weeks ago I was in Durban visiting a missionary friend that works with kids in squatter camps.  As part of their weekly routine, they have a staff member that spends a day going to government offices to help their kids obtain ID books, birth certificates, and government grant money.  So I went along to see what that process was like.  

After our daughter Kendi was born here in South Africa I had to visit the Department of Home Affairs (the place you go for ID books and birth certificates.)  So, I already knew that spending the day in the DHA is kind of like saying that you’re going to spend the day at the US Department of Motor Vehicles.  In other words, it’s not really a place that you want to spend all day.

As boring as that day might sound, it was actually eye opening to see what the underprivileged have to go through in South Africa, and how difficult life can be for them.  Our day started at 7:30 am when I met Siyanda (the missionary staff member) along the side of the road and drove him to the DHA office.  We waited for about an hour before the lady who we were helping could arrive.  She had to come by taxi.  Taxis in South Africa are mini-busses that are piloted by completely insane drivers that are part Nascar driver, part pirate, and part mafia hit man.  In other words, you don’t want to have to ride in a South African taxi.   But for the poor, that is the only option. 

A typical South African taxi

The woman we were helping was a mother of a 4-month-old baby girl.  The woman’s shack had recently burned down, destroying her ID book, her birth certificate, and her matric (graduation) certificate.  To understand the significance of this loss, you need to know that in South Africa, you need your ID book for nearly everything.  Without an ID book, you can’t get a job, open a bank account, or apply for a government grant.  Most poor people are only hired on a temporary basis, so that the employer doesn’t have to pay benefits to them.  The temporary job where this woman worked had recently come to an end, and without an ID book, she could not get another job.

The week before I was with them, they had visited the DHA to get her a new ID book.  They told her that her ID number was not showing up in the computer and she would have to come back the next week.  So the next week, when I was with them, she was told the same thing.  Each time she visits the office, it costs her more taxi fare, and it’s another week that she can’t get a job without her ID book.  No one seems to know why she’s not in the system, and no one seems interested in finding a solution.  She repeatedly told to “wait.”

Then the next mission was to get a printout of her matric results, for potential employers.  Of course, that is in another office in another part of town.  So we jumped in the car, drove downtown, and went into the department of education.  After waiting through the line, we were told that we were at the wrong office and we must go to the other department of education office that is in another part of town.  But, of course, they don’t know where that office is.

So we took off on foot in the vaguely northern direction that the employee told us to go.  We spent about an hour circling around the seedy part of downtown Durban trying to find the right office.  Finally we found the other Department of Education, only to find out that there was yet a third Department of Education office around the corner.  This time we were lucky enough to get directions.  We found the office, and she filled out her paperwork and she now has to wait 3 weeks for her results to arrive.  All the while she sits at home, with her 4-month-old baby, unable to get a job.

Some boys in a Durban squatter camp

After spending half of my day with this young woman it was clear to me how difficult it is for the poor to break out of the cycle of poverty.  This is just one example of the hurdles and obstacles that a person has to overcome before they can find legitimate employment.  It’s no wonder people sit at home, waiting for the government to rescue them; and its no wonder that people turn to crime.

This woman that we were helping is a high school graduate, with an experienced missionary helping her through the process.  Imagine how difficult it would be for an uneducated, illiterate person who has rarely ventured beyond the world of the squatter camp.  For a person like that to find their way to the correct government offices, wade through the mountain of paperwork required, and jump through all the hurdles, it is monumental challenge. 

For those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in a first world environment, we’ve never had to see the world through the lens of the poor.  Sometimes it’s good to see the world through the eyes of another.



  1. Yet another thing us who grew up in first world countries take for granted. Thank you for sharing. Fauche

  2. It sounds like sitting someone down at the foot of Mt. Everest, and giving them a toothpick for a walking stick, and some dental floss for their climbing rope. "And good luck with that!".
    Eye opening. Thank God she has someone like you to giver her at least a little back-up.
    May God open hidden doors for this woman.

  3. Fauche and Susan, it is amazing what people have to go through here everyday! It is unreal at times. Thanks for the prayers!