The Jewish Report Editorial

Beggars and blankets

The barefooted beggars staring glumly into car windows at traffic lights, trying to catch the eyes of the driver, and the homeless people sleeping under bridges or on pavements in Johannesburg, faced extra hardship this week - freezing weather. So did the squatter population and shack-dwellers in townships around the city. Some have electricity; a significant proportion don’t.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Jun 11, 2014

What can ordinary people driving the cars, who live in warm homes in suburban Johannesburg or elsewhere, do to help? In the face of South Africa’s appalling poverty statistics (it has among the highest gaps between haves and have-nots in the world and horrendous unemployment), individual efforts seem miniscule and futile. 

An initiative started by Carolyn Steyn and enthusiastically adopted by the Jewish Report - “67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day” - is gaining momentum by offering a means for ordinary people to get involved. See story page 2.

It aims to provide thousands of blankets for needy people, which have been handmade from squares knitted or crocheted together. It is structured in such a way that everyone can participate. Individuals or groups can knit squares or whole blankets, or donate wool and needles for others to knit. 

The timing and spirit of this venture is done in the memory of the icon that bound this country together in a time when it could have exploded - Nelson Mandela. His ethos is held dear by both poor and rich.

Obviously, the macro-problem of poverty in this country is not going to be solved by the “67 Blankets” initiative. But for every single recipient, a blanket makes a big difference. Part of its importance is to highlight the needy and get ordinary people into the mindset that they can personally help. 

There are many willing onlookers disturbed by the suffering around them who would like to assist, but don’t know how to go about it. People have responded to “67 Blankets” from different parts of society - old, young, schools, synagogues, Jewish companies, organisations and others. 

There is, of course, the argument that instead of knitting blankets, a wealthy person might simply write out a cheque to purchase thousands of manufactured blankets for distribution to the poor. Is that not better? 

The “67 Blankets” initiative doesn’t claim to replace such an important action of a generous donor. However, it allows the ordinary person who cannot write out such a cheque to nevertheless feel that they have also contributed in a meaningful way. 

South African Jews are accustomed to putting energy into raising money for their own community and Israel. This is a critical requirement for our Jewish wellbeing. But as South Africans, we must also point our energies in the direction of our fellow citizens in the broader community, to build towards the vision of a prosperous, caring South African nation. The Jewish Report is part and parcel of this country’s fabric - patriotic South African, while also unashamedly Zionist. 

Because of our society’s racial history, Jews are unavoidably part of the white population segment, the predominantly privileged and comfortable sector, accustomed to being warm in winter. 

For similar reasons, most of the recipients of the blankets, who are freezing in winter, will be black. Helping to reach across this racial divide - not in a patronising way, but in a way that protects the dignity of all sides - should also be a subtext of this project. 

But it should not stop here. The “67 Blankets” project should be a beginning, a trigger to propel participants into becoming more involved. The South African Jewish community has long been known for its generosity and willingness to assist. Throughout the years of apartheid and since then, Jewish women’s organisations and others such as Afrika Tikkun, have unstintingly worked with needy communities, often behind the scenes and without fanfare. 

Thousands more willing hands are necessary to produce the multitude of squares and blankets which will bring some warmth to the needy. Let this set the tone for us all. 

There is still time to get involved in this worthy cause.




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