Standing with the ‘undeserving poor’

I have only ever read one full work by George Bernard Shaw.
Like most people who have ever encountered the playwright, I would like to believe, my experience of Shaw’s work is in “Pygmalion”.
Not that I went out looking for it. “Pygmalion” sat on the bookshelf of my childhood home for well-over 15 years before I ventured to flip beyond the first page.
Never having been a fan of plays (and poetry, I might add), I only opened “Pygmalion” because I had nothing else to read.
But it was not a wasted effort.
The play is based on an ancient Greek myth in which the sculptor, Pygmalion, fell in love with an ivory carving of a woman that he had made.
The goddess Venus brings the sculpture to life and Pygmalion, to use a cliché, lives happily ever after with her.
It is a tale of the creator falling in love with this creation.
In Shaw’s play, a lower class girl is metaphorically “brought to life” by a phonetics professor who – on a whim – takes a bet to teach a commoner to speak like and pass off as a lady in society.
At the centre of Shaw’s play is the class battle, and it is in this social tension that one of the greatest characters of the stage makes his appearance in the form of a real rogue called Alfred Doolittle.
Doolittle is the father of the lower-class girl on whom the professor practices his social experiment.
Best described as silver-tongued garbage collector, he is the presenter of Pygmalion’s best monologue, in which he rails against “middle-class morality” and makes a firm stand for the rights of the “undeserving poor”.
He waxes lyrical: “…my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband.
“I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low.
“Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything.”
But what has Shaw got to do with anything today? The play was written at the turn of the 20th century and is based on a myth that is hundreds of years older. So what?
I thought of Alfred Doolittle this past week as I pondered on Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC and South Africa’s “undeserving poor”.
The term “undeserving poor” is not one you will hear anyone use in relation to the millions of downtrodden in South Africa.
They are more often mentioned within the context of power politics between big hitters within the ANC political programme, and the business class’ economic agenda.
Rarely do they get an Alfred Doolittle to speak out authoritatively for them: they wait for the politicians, the businesspersons and their media to tell them what they deserve and what they don’t deserve – and more often than not they turn out to be the “undeserving poor”.
In Cyril Ramaphosa, some hope that they have an Alfred Doolittle, a man who has come from the very bottom and has made it to the very top in both business and politics.
In his biography of the man, Anthony Butler paints a picture of a Ramaphosa whose heart has always been with the “undeserving poor”, despite the fact that he is the second-richest black man in South Africa.
There are accounts of how one of Ramaphosa’s biggest regrets is that he never was a miner because that deprived him of the intimate knowledge of the pains of the “undeserving poor”.
He was at the heart of trade unionism, working daily with the undeserving poor during apartheid.
And in 1994 we are told of how Ramaphosa preferred to go and cast his first vote with the “undeserving poor” in an independent South Africa at a gold mine where he had been at the forefront of forming the National Union of Mineworkers rather than in his home ward in Soweto.
Butler quotes Ramaphosa recalling the day “I was stopped by one old miner … who said: 'We are pleased you are here … I can now go and retire because what we fought for all these years, and what you also came and fought for, has now been attained and I can go and retire, and your coming here shows that you have come home – you belong to us miners’.”
In another part of the biography, Ramaphosa takes his own dig at “middle-class morality” when he says: “The law is one of those professions that tend to promote bourgeoisie tendencies.”
That is Ramaphosa for you, a man who can be a Doolittle.
But have the hundreds of millions of rand changed him since he lost out to Thabo Mbeki for the ANC and state Deputy Presidency back in 1994?
Has his status as a capitalist – and a very successful one at that – brought him closer to, or moved him further away from the undeserving poor?
When Ramaphosa speaks of the actions of striking miners, those same people he felt so passionately about a couple of decades ago and whom he went to vote with in 1994, as “dastardly criminal”, how committed is he to striking that yet-to-be-found balance between the interests of capital and those of the “undeserving poor”?
At the end of Shaw’s play, Alfred Doolittle – because of his smooth tongue – has come into a fair bit of wealth that has moved him from the ranks of the “undeserving poor” and into the middle-class.
Doolittle is not too pleased by his changed circumstances, and one of his biggest gripes is that now that he has money, he is the one who must be helping the “undeserving poor” while at the same time preaching “middle-class morality”.
Millions of South Africans will hope and pray that Ramaphosa does not forget the “undeserving poor”.

January 2013
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