The art of everyday help

Milisuthando Bongela. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

Milisuthando Bongela. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

Helplessness. An equalising condition bequeathed to every person. We who need help to do everything but breathe, and sometimes not even that is guaranteed when we first enter this place with the help of our mothers.
The poet and philosopher David Whyte eruditely expresses the necessity of help: “Even the most solitary writer needs a reader, the most Machiavellian mobster a trusted lieutenant, the most independent candidate, a voter.”

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But what comes so naturally that we never need to ask, however, is often encouraged out of us the older we become, as we need and want to pursue lives of independence. Or, in many cases in unequal societies, needing help is abused beyond recognition, making it nearly impossible to traverse our way back to knowing how to ask for it when, as a society, any society, our need for help far outweighs our refusal of it.

“Any strong men and women to help us close the overhead storage please? Strong men and women please?” asked a KLM flight attendant dressed in an aqua-blue skirt suit, red lipstick and a twisted chignon of blonde hair neatly swept to the side.

She didn’t need to ask a second time. Strong men all over the mid-section of the plane got up to close the overhead storage. And one strong woman with long brown hair under her arms.

I was surprised by the fact that the flight attendant asked for help and even more surprised that people jumped to her rescue. I hadn’t experienced vulnerability in the Dutch in the two weeks I had spent with them. My observation of them in Amsterdam and in the small town of Almere was that they are a pretty self-sufficient people.

The thought of having domestic workers and “helpers” as we do in South Africa is so far away from their everyday lives. It’s tucked away under the distance of the slave history that binds me as a South African to them as Dutch people. In an effort to understand what influences the way we do things differently, I enjoyed watching them and wondering whether some of the things they do would work in South Africa.

We’ve created a culture in which we have become less and less willing to do even the smallest things ourselves, such as putting your own parking ticket into the machine at the shopping mall boom gate. When I asked a forlorn security guard in the cement labyrinth that is Rosebank Mall’s parking lot why he was putting my parking ticket in for me, he said: “I’m stationed here because some people forget to pay at the ticket station, so I collect their money here.”

I didn’t know how to respond to this man. Would giving him my ticket make him feel more useful? Would putting it in myself make him feel more useless?

I thought about him as I watched, as if it was a movie, a Dutch woman take five minutes to get out of a rather hairy parking dilemma of endless three-point turns. There was nobody to guide her out from the spot where she was sandwiched between other cars. I watched her struggle without something I have become accustomed to: help.

In Amsterdam, I experienced the growth of the automation of services. I love that I had to learn how to buy a train ticket with no human interaction or put my luggage in public storage with no man to help me to lift it into the locker or some ausi to ask about how to do it. There, nobody touches your bank card because it’s expected that all payments are your responsibility.

The cashier at the Albert Heijn grocery store doesn’t have a “the customer is always right” mentality. In fact, she has the right to speak back to customers in any way she sees fit. I saw an Ikea store for the first time and asked my friends whether customers really have to assemble their own furniture if they buy from that shop. They confirmed it. And at Schiphol airport, there are no longer friendly staff to check you and your bag in. I had never checked in my own luggage and attached that long white sticker to my own bag.

Would this work in South Africa, where African children have been known to kneel down in front of their fathers carrying a bowl of warm water and a towel so that the older men can wash their hands without leaving the sofa?

In my lovely country someone fills my car with petrol while I play on my cellphone, or a woman packs my groceries while I watch her divide edibles from cleaning products.

A few weeks ago I was in a queue at Woolworths about to pay for a bunch of flowers. When I took out my debit card to hand over to the cashier, she said: “It’s self-service, sisi. You need to put the card in yourself.” I was delighted to hear that this was Woolworths’ new rule — that every customer should handle the card payment themselves.

When I asked her how other customers react, it was as if she had prayed for me to choose her till so that she could tell someone. She didn’t hesitate to garnish my curiosity with stories of how many people have complained that they have to facilitate their own payments, some even going as far as asking for the manager.

I’m not the first person to ask this question, but what can this self-service culture teach us about ourselves and the functionality of our society? If I can relinquish the smallest of responsibilities under the guise of “creating employment”, what of the bigger responsibilities on a national level?

The other, perhaps redeeming, side of this is that it allows for the small daily interactions between us that are the invisible glue aiding the process of getting to know each other that apartheid took away. We are forced to greet, to make small talk and to talk to each other.

What kind of people has it made of the Dutch that they don’t rub up against each other in the myriad ways that we do and are forced to interact? We don’t necessarily understand each other better as South Africans. In fact, a lot of the time our interactions are taken up by our national pastime of fighting. Which parts of our humanity do we develop when we cease to ask for help or demand too much help from others?

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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