Putting Privilege Into Perspective

Originally printed in the August 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Recently I came across a quote from an unknown person: ‘Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because you aren’t affected personally’. I then had to think about various interactions I have had with friends and strangers about my involvement in impoverished communities.

Some people cannot understand this. ‘It is just a drop in the ocean’, or ‘You can never solve the problems caused by poverty’, and ‘Why do you care about people 11,000 kilometres away?’

Indeed, sometimes it feels like we are fighting a losing battle. For every 2,000 children we are feeding there is another line of 5,000 waiting….

I will try to put this in perspective. In Dutch, we have a saying ‘Een kind kiest niet waar zijn wieg staat’. Translated it means that no child has a choice where his/her crib is located at birth. Some are born into privilege; others into poverty.

I have four sons, Steven, Nicaél, Milan and Luca. They all understand this concept, and are all thankful for the opportunities that they have been afforded, simply because of the location of their cribs at birth. No stress thus far.

No child has a choice where his/her crib is located at birth. Some are born into privilege; others into poverty.

But then this week I also read a story on Facebook, written by someone who lives in the Free State Province of South Africa. I asked permission to translate this memorable piece of writing into English.

’22 June 2020. This morning as I drove through the gates of my residential complex, I noticed the police pulling over. They remove a silver body bag from their vehicle. Under a tree next to our gate I see an inert body, covered in a thin blanket that barely reaches the person’s shoulders. I stop and look. The policeman searches the person’s pockets and finds a scrap of paper. ‘Johnny. Born 1969. In June’ is all that is written.

One of the bystanders says “He is dead, for sure”. Last night it had rained heavily. It still is icy cold.

The policeman says: “He probably tried to get some shelter under the tree”, and then he covers Johnny with the body bag. “We do not know a thing about him. The authorities will probably bury him in the section for unclaimed bodies”.

I drive away, thinking of how I recently had complained during the Covid-19 lockdown. I think about moaning because it was not possible to go to my favourite restaurant. And about the cracked screen of my IPhone that I could not get repaired. About Woolworths that continuously ran out of stock of the free-range chicken that I needed for my weekly barbecue. Most importantly, how angry I had been at having to cancel my overseas holiday.

I wonder if it was Johnny whom I saw begging for food at the traffic lights a week ago. Like many other drivers, I turned a blind eye and drove past him with barely a glance in his direction. I wonder where Johnny’s father is. The one who held him tightly when he was born in June 1969. Who smiled proudly when Johnny was handed to him in the blue hospital-issue blanket. The father who laughed with joy when Johnny started walking, the father who kissed him when he cut his first tooth, and when he said his first words….

I talk aloud in the confines of my car. “Johnny, you probably were just like any other child who loved to play and draw pictures and who went to school with big dreams of the future. What happened? When last did you sleep in a warm, safe bed in the cold Free State winters? Had a hot shower? Do you even know on which day of June you were born? Today, 22 June you are lying dead under a tree. I am sorry. I failed you. We all did.’

Johnny’s name could also have been Steven, Nicaél, Milan or Luca. His crib just stood somewhere else, and his life just took different turns. As a father, that is why I try to reach out to the underprivileged. Because living a privileged life should not make you blind. It should open your eyes.

Don’t judge me. Join me. Every little bit helps.