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The reward of intervention is worth the wait

A letter to Pam Green, whose ‘dream ended’ when Joseph Phukube returned to the streets of Johannesburg.

Dear Pam,

I’ve watched you share the dream of young South African, Joseph Phukube and his hopes for something more, a better life. I’ve watched the story take like wildfire to the social networks and media, and I’ve rooted for the both of you. In the aftermath, it hasn’t been easy to watch the dismantling of a dream, of a sincere act of kindness unraveling in the face of poverty and drug addiction. I can only imagine how you must feel – the sadness, anger, disappointment. It’s been a scary and rude awakening.

What I fear however, is that the naysayers will be quick to point out how poor people are inherently “lazy” and that even when given a chance, they “mess it up”. If only it were that simple. But as you and I both know, the world is not merely black and white. It is complex, multi-coloured and multi-faceted. It refuses to bow to our simple frameworks and formulas. It begs a deeper engagement.

I’ve spent more than ten years walking the journey of trying to pull people out of the grinding circumstances of poverty – mostly in my personal capacity, and more recently in a more official capacity. And while South Africans’ acts of reaching out that have recently caught the media’s attention have been a great change in the narrative of complete economic separation, I would like to suggest that this is just the beginning of the work our country needs to do.

For the last eight years, my husband and I have supported a young man from Soweto. Orphaned at the age of ten and left with a sick baby sister in the care of his grandmother, this young man has faced extreme hunger, the threat of drugs and gangs, sickness and absolute loneliness as he made the choice to drag himself to school day in and day out while his grandmother battled alcoholism.

When I met him, he was finishing matric and trying to get into a university. His marks were not good, but he managed to get into a private college. He was with students who came from middle-income homes, so while he was still trying to process how to file his notes, they were creating amazing powerpoint presentations for their assignments. The gap was astounding. It was also not within his reach to cross. We tried to help, but we simply didn’t have the time to give him the skills he needed to compete in what amounted to a completely foreign world for him, given his background.

To cut a long story short, over the years we then supported him through an attempt to rewrite his matric, by giving his family monthly food parcels, and offering advice and support to him and the family where needed. He struggled in menial, dead-end sales jobs for a long time, but eventually, I was able to place him in a job where he has since thrived beyond anything I could have imagined. He’s proven his worth to the extent of being promoted several times over in just a couple of years.

My point is that this was not a once-off, miraculous story of intervention and dramatic change. The damage of poverty and loss is deep when you’ve never met your father and have lost your mother at such a young age. The fear and worry that you grow up with affects the structure of your brain, and the journey to “recovery” is a slow and measured process.

And after all these years, this young man (who is only a few years younger than I) has finally pulled off his “miracle”. Two months ago he bought his first home. He is living in a new development in Soweto on his own, on a property that is bigger than the home he grew up in with 27 other people.

He is also on a scholarship from his company to study economics and owns his own car. But it wasn’t a Cinderella story of instant change as the clock struck 12. It was a patient and consistent walk together that slowly replaced old behaviours with new ones.

My point is this: the damage of inequality is deep. Poverty is not a simple problem to solve – hence its persistence over the centuries. Its work is not simply on a single person, but is ingrained in generational patterns of thinking and surviving, and always to the detriment of those who suffer under it.

As economist Sendil Shafir puts it, “Scarcity captures the mind… when we experience scarcity of any kind, we become absorbed by it. The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs… It changes how we think.”

Joseph, as brave and hopeful as he was, was facing something far bigger than himself. As were you. But the beauty is that with that single connection, you both reimagined a world where rich and poor can coexist, where colour transcends the everyday existence and where a new narrative is created.

For every person I’ve succeeded in helping, at least two have fallen by the wayside. But the one left standing… wow! What a stand!

And so I encourage you Pam, and every other South African who has reached out at some point, to find your next Joseph. But understand that a commitment to him or her is like a commitment to a young child learning to walk and talk and be in a world they’ve had limited experience with until now. Be patient. The reward is beautiful. It is the co-creation of the rainbow nation filled with opportunity we are all awaiting.

*Leisl Algeo is Managing Director of educational programme Launchpad Learning.

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