Author Topic: SOUTH AFRICA: Blind beggars go south  (Read 1498 times)

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JOHANNESBURG, 13 June 2011 (IRIN) - They are a common sight at Johannesburg's busy intersections - a blind man or woman holding the arm of a seeing companion who thrusts a cup in the direction of passing motorists in the hope of getting a few coins.

The blind beggars started appearing in increasing numbers about six years ago, when the escalating political and financial crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe pushed thousands of migrants across the border into South Africa.

Among the new arrivals were blind people, most of whom had survived by begging before hyper-inflation and unemployment pushed much of Zimbabwe’s population into poverty. A government disability grant of 20 Zimbabwean dollars a month had become virtually worthless and Lucy Ndebele of Zimbabwe’s Council for the Blind said even those with professional jobs found they could earn more by begging in South Africa, where “people are prepared to give them a few coins”.

Gift Mupambiki, 32, who lost his sight during a bout of measles when he was 3 years old, decided to leave his home town in northern Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland region in 2007. “There was drought. We were surviving by begging, but people didn’t have anything to give,” he said.

He made his way to Johannesburg, accompanied by friends who had already made the move and knew how to negotiate their way across the border by sweet-talking sympathetic guards. Once there he moved into one of the dilapidated, overcrowded buildings in the inner city that is the only accommodation many migrants can afford. 

He was chased from the building in 2008 when angry locals in townships and low-income areas across South Africa turned on their foreign neighbours and drove them out of their homes. 

After a brief spell camping in the safety of a local police station, Mupambiki and many of his blind friends moved into another run-down building near the city’s Ellis Park Stadium. The 600 tenants, including 176 blind people, were already living in squalid conditions when they were served an eviction notice in February 2010.

They have stopped paying rent and the owner has cut off the water and electricity supplies, making Mupambiki and the other blind tenants even more dependent on their seeing “assistants” to collect water from a public tap across the street. The assistants are often younger relatives who cook and generally care for their blind partner as well as helping them to beg in return for a share of the takings.

On a good day, said Emmanuel Runyanga, a friend of Mupambiki’s who stays in the same building, they might get R50 (US$7). It takes four months for Runyanga and his wife, who is also blind, to save R200 ($29) to send home to Zimbabwe where Runyanga’s mother is looking after their two young children. Mupambiki has a wife and three children in Mashonaland. “If I have a little [money saved] I send it home because we do this for the children,” he told IRIN.

At 7am on a recent morning, with the temperature just above freezing, a steady stream of blind people led by their assistants emerge from the building near Ellis Park to make their way on foot to intersections all over the city, where they will station themselves for the rest of the day or until they are chased away by the police.

Begging and loitering are illegal according to the city’s by-laws, but Johannesburg’s motorists are accustomed to window washers, hawkers and beggars approaching their vehicles at most major intersections.

The police occasionally arrest Mupambiki and his assistant, who is a friend’s younger brother, and hold them at a local police station for a few hours. “They fine us R350 ($52), but we don’t have that money,” he said. “Normally they release us during the night.”

Mupambiki, Runyanga and several other blind people IRIN spoke to were less afraid of the police than they were of social workers employed by the City, who periodically pick them up at intersections.

“They take us… and drive us far away from the city and leave us there, even in the forest,” said Mupambiki. “Our assistants follow the wheel tracks to the road and then stop a motorist who can take us back.”

The blind people alleged that on other occasions the social workers drove them to a building in the Hillbrow area of the inner city where they photographed them and inflicted various types of abuse, including beating and hosing them with cold water.

Runyanga said he had experienced such treatment at the hands of the City’s social workers on nine occasions. “Last time I tried phoning the police and explaining, but they wouldn’t help me,” he said.

In an emailed response to IRIN’s questions about these incidents, Wandile Zwane, director of human development in the City’s Community Development Department, denied the allegations of ill-treatment.

He said social workers employed by the City’s Displaced Persons Unit target people living and working on the streets and invite them to an assessment centre in Hillbrow, where their picture is taken to help identify them in future, and an assessment is conducted “to ascertain the nature of challenges facing the person and explore if it is possible to assist in finding solutions.”

He insisted that their approach was “persuasive” and that no one was forced to go to the assessment centre. “In reality many of the people, including the blind who beg on the streets, are resistant to assistance and often threaten violence,” he wrote. “In the event that they refuse, they are still educated and requested to move from the street.”

Ndebele of the Council for the Blind said although Zimbabwe’s economy has improved somewhat in the last two years, most of the blind people who moved to South Africa at the height of the crisis have remained there. “In the [Zimbabwean] civil service, people are still only getting about $150 a month, so they can still probably make more begging in South Africa,” she said.

For all the hardship Mupambiki has endured since moving to Johannesburg, it is still not enough to send him home to Zimbabwe. “It’s much better here,” he told IRIN.

Source: The Integrated Regional Information Networks ( )


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